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Guest opinion: Reflections on racism and the hard-fought establishment of MLK Day in Utah

By Keith Burns - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Jan 21, 2023

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Keith Burns

During the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we should take time to reflect upon the painful struggle it took for the holiday to receive recognition by the state of Utah. In fact, Utah was one of the last states to recognize the holiday, which it did not do until 2000, 14 years after it became known as a federal holiday in 1986. It is difficult to analyze patterns of racism in Utah without examining the LDS Church’s massive and continued influence on Utah culture, economics and politics. In fact, 86% of Utah lawmakers are LDS Church members, and all congressional seats and statewide political offices are held by Latter-day Saints. With such extreme overrepresentation, it is unsurprising that social and political patterns of racism in Utah are largely reflective of LDS teachings and policies surrounding race.

Brigham Young is known as one of the most racist LDS prophets, on one occasion declaring: “If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” He also frequently insisted that God had assigned whites “to be the masters and superiors” of Black people. His deeply racist sensibilities, coupled with his political ambitions for Utah statehood, led him to implement a priesthood and temple ban on people of African descent, a policy that remained in effect until 1978.

As documented in the book “The Mormon Church and Blacks” and elsewhere, throughout the first half of the 20th century, the majority of LDS leaders and members held white supremacist views that reflected broader U.S. racism. It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s that LDS teachings began to diverge from mainstream public sentiments regarding civil rights and racial equality. Perhaps the most outspoken rightwing figure of 20th century Mormonism, Ezra Taft Benson detested the civil rights movement and its figurehead, Martin Luther King Jr. He felt that “the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America.” He also characterized the civil rights movement as “overthrow[ing] established government” through “widespread anarchy” and the sparking of “a nation-wide civil war.” Benson exerted tremendous effort toward protecting Latter-day Saints and the country from furtive and pernicious communist forces he felt were gradually infiltrating the U.S. In fact, he regularly accused Martin Luther King Jr. of being part of a “communist conspiracy” and one who “unquestionably parallel[ed] the Communist line.”

As historical analyses can attest, while Benson was the most conspiratorial in his condemnations of civil rights, most LDS leaders of the mid-20th century opposed the civil rights movement and supported segregation, mainly in the name of preventing interracial marriage. Prominent LDS Apostle J. Reuben Clark described interracial marriage as a “wicked virus” that was “biologically” and “spiritually” wrong. Another outspoken defender of segregation and the Church’s temple and priesthood ban, Bruce R. McConkie, explained in his 1958 book, “Mormon Doctrine,” that “caste systems have their root and origin in the gospel itself” and “the resultant restrictions and segregation are right and proper and have the approval of the Lord.” Apostle Mark E. Petersen similarly condemned interracial marriage in these stark terms:

“We must not intermarry with the Negro. Why? If I were to marry a Negro woman and have children by her, my children would all be cursed as to the priesthood. Do I want my children cursed as to the priesthood? If there is one drop of Negro blood in my children, as I have read to you, they receive the curse. There isn’t any argument, therefore, as to inter-marriage with the Negro, is there?”

Although the LDS church officially removed the temple and priesthood ban in 1978, the residue of their racial teachings, including ultra-conservative repudiations of the civil rights movement, has continued to permeate the culture and structure of the LDS Church and the state of Utah. In 1986, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, was controversially invited to give a speech at the BYU campus, which generated uproar particularly among Latter-day Saints who had internalized propagandistic attacks regarding Dr. King and civil rights. One disgruntled church member wrote to the BYU board of trustees saying: “I wish to register a strong protest toward the administration of BYU in allowing that institution to be utilized to further a communist cause.”

The controversy in Utah over Dr. King’s legacy continued to swirl, as a series of legislative sessions repeatedly struck down the proposal to adopt a federal holiday named after him. Some legislators favored a “Human Rights Day” instead, a position that eerily resembles “all lives matter” arguments today. However, thanks to tireless grassroots protests outside the Utah Legislature, and lobbying efforts from social justice organizations like the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, the racial tides in Utah were slowly beginning to shift in the late 1990s. Then-LDS President Gordon Hinckley had significant influence on public perception regarding Dr. King and civil rights, as he firmly rejected many of his predecessors’ mischaracterizations of Dr. King as a communist co-conspirator. Most notably, he accepted an invitation in 1998 to speak at the NAACP, an organization that was branded just 25 years earlier by his predecessor Ezra Taft Benson as “subversive.” Thanks in large part to Hinckley’s willingness to build a relationship with the NAACP and temper the church’s right-wing conspiratorial image, an atmosphere was being cultivated in Utah that would ultimately allow for the acceptance of MLK Day as a federal holiday. Hinckley himself urged LDS lobbyists to petition Utah lawmakers to adopt the holiday, which they eventually did in 2000, one of the last states to do so.

While much of Utah and the LDS Church have distanced themselves from the explicit right-winged racism of the past, prevailing notions today often promote a “color blind” view of the U.S. where all people are declared equal regardless of skin color. LDS Church President Russell Nelson has condemned racism on numerous occasions, most recently stating: “I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. … Today, I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.” While these condemnations are noteworthy, especially when contrasted with the deeply racist LDS teachings of previous decades, it is difficult to reconcile with his words the fact that close to 100% of church leadership is white. In fact, there are only two African American men serving as general authorities of the church currently. Similarly, most political and institutional positions in Utah are occupied by white men. Thus, for the LDS Church and the state of Utah to effectively move toward racial equity, we must move beyond general condemnations of racism and fundamentally restructure systems of power and influence such that people of color are equally represented.

Keith Burns is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism and sexuality.

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