By Dr. Darron Smith
June 2013 will mark the 35th anniversary that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lifted its infamous ban on people of African ancestry, which denied them full participation in church affairs and priesthood responsibilities. Since the church’s inception as an organized religion in 1830, over 7 generations of mostly white Latter-day Saints have been taught some version of negative white racial frames about black people as spiritually unworthy and destined to be in bondage to white folk until God sees fit to remove an alleged “curse” of blackness upon them. A similar version of this belief existed in the Old World. After making its way across the Atlantic Ocean, the folklore circulated throughout European-colonial America and was passed down into contemporary white mainstream Christianity up until the late seventies. Just as the United States considered black Africans as 3/5 of a human being and treated them as such, Mormon’s saw black skin as an irreducible sign of God’s disfavor and, thus, banned them from full participation. Insular writings by church authorities lambasted the Black experience, blaming black suffering on divine forces rather than white supremacist tendencies (that are irrefutable given the time).
Yet, throughout the development, refinement and implementation of those racist teachings, at least two black men were baptized and ordained to the Mormon priesthood during the time of Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith. Mormon researchers knew this information long ago, and some tried in vain to encourage Church Headquarters to talk openly about and acknowledge what historians uncovered about two of its own, Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis. Both men were black and bore the “Mark of Cain” in Mormon theology. Both, however, also held the priesthood and all of its blessings that their descendants were later denied. The Mormon faith released a statement today that acknowledges the existence of these men and their place in respects to church liturgical rites. The statement furthered that nobody knows why the ban on blacks existed in the first place, “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.”
For over one hundred eighty years, members of the LDS Church have unwittingly been racially socialized (in the backstage) to believe in some form of black inferiority and white superiority as God’s chosen people. The backstage racist attacks on the temporal and spiritual destiny of black people in Mormonism was viscous and condescending. And the polite tone (in the front stage) toward them as children of God and potential converts was schizophrenic, to say the least. The LDS Church has struggled with the presence of Blacks, especially the activism of the Civil Rights Movement, which drew sharp criticism from church authorities with far-right ideas.
The church has yet to issue a formal apology for its part in the formation and maintenance of racist discourse. Church leaders are convinced that the 1978 official declaration, which ended 125 years of racial discrimination against black people (that began with Brigham Young’s statement to the Utah Territorial Legislation in 1852), was enough silence their critics. Or that white people have done enough to bring about systemic change. With a stroke of a pen, white racist traditions ostensibly ceased to exist. Mitt Romney claimed he was overcome with emotion at the announcement, which paved the way for R&B legend Gladys Knight, a black Mormon, to join the faith. Racist one day, non-racist the next. Unfortunately, it is not possible to undo historical patterns of stratification by merely enacting legislation or having a revelation, for that matter.
Change is forged, first and foremost, in honest conversation and a deep prophetic understanding grounded in mutual trust of the vicissitudes of the human experience with all the raw emotion that flows from such meaningful discussion. As it’s been said, it is having the strength and courage to be transformed by “my experience as I have been by yours.” But there was no wrestling with weighty matters of a history of racist indoctrination among rank-in-file white Mormons. Church Authorities merely ended the priesthood ban and left the membership with the burden of examining their own internal biases in its wake. As it has always been in Mormonism, the head speaks and the body follows. The two tokens offered yesterday, finally publically acknowledging their place in Mormon history, are not enough to silence the demand for human decency and certainly not enough to end the deep, internalized white racial frames of their followers. Until the LDS Church apologizes, black folk should pause when seeing two out-of-place, “clean cut” looking, white boys on bicycles in their neighborhood.