Help a Brother Out

Prospects of the LDS Church publicly reconciling its racist heritage are dim.

Salt Lake City Weekly/June 1, 2006
By Shane Johnson

With the October 2004 publication of Black and Mormon, contributor, co-editor and black Mormon Darron Smith figured it was as good a time as any to stick his neck out.

When Smith joined the fold in 1981, he knew nothing of Prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 revelation lifting a ban on African-American males holding the priesthood. As he studied the previous century-plus of divine prejudice and encountered its vestiges, he found it increasingly difficult to square his race with his faith.

Upon releasing the book, Smith spearheaded a campaign to urge the church to officially denounce the spiritual folklore underpinning the ban, scrub or contextualize racist church publications still in circulation, and apologize for the “violence” the church’s racist legacy has done to African-American members’ psyches.

It’s a tall order, but Smith isn’t alone in thinking the church left questions unanswered when it announced the revelation—which, incidentally, was accompanied in the LDS Church News by an article titled, “Interracial Marriage Discouraged.” He is, however, essentially alone among members in his outspokenness.

He’s received hundreds of calls and e-mails from sympathetic members; he’s made his case on TV, radio, in print and most recently in a well-received podcast, which can be found online at Yet, the grass-roots campaign hasn’t materialized.

“There’s not really an activist bone in most Mormons’ bodies,” Smith concludes. Some members who’ve expressed support nonetheless urge Smith against holding a formal press conference, which he’s been considering for more than a year, to implore church leadership to act.

Smith suspects fear of retaliation is a factor. Shortly after going public in late 2004, Brigham Young University, where Smith had worked as an adjunct instructor for nearly 10 years, declined to renew his contract.

Seemingly progressive church-affiliated organizations have shown interest but won’t commit vocal support. Mormons for Equality and Social Justice “does not take stands or promote actions that are contrary to the doctrines or policies of the LDS Church.” The Genesis Group, a church-sponsored fellowship organization for black Mormons, recently reversed support for Smith’s aims.

In a late-2004 round table with Smith and other black Mormons anxious for resolution, Genesis President Don Harwell preached patience. “I don’t like it any more than you do, from the bottom of my heart,” he said then, but he assured that church officials were carefully considering ways to put the uncertainty to rest.

Once Smith’s highest-placed ally, Harwell is today of a different mind. “At one time, I think I really felt like Darron,” Harwell says. “‘They owe us an apology, and they owe us this, and they owe us that’—they owe us nothing.”

Harwell’s change of heart came partly as a result of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s sermon during a priesthood session at April’s General Conference.

“Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this church,” Hinckley said, “emphatically,” according to Harwell. “It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation. … There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.”

In Harwell’s mind, “this is now, that was then, let it go, move on. … I think President Hinckley has made it very clear he is not going to put down what another prophet said. He’s not going to say they were wrong, because he doesn’t know.”

That said, Harwell agrees the church should somehow dispel racist sentiments in the widely circulated writings of LDS Elder Bruce R. McConkie, and he doesn’t doubt some church leaders still hold beliefs against interracial coupling among Latter-day Saints.

Though Smith appreciates Hinckley’s condemnation of racism in the church, he doesn’t think it takes responsibility off the church for having fostered such ideas. And as long as he’s got the youth and vigor, the 40-year-old insists, “I’m not going to shut up about it.” But unless liberal Mormons take a radical turn, Smith fears his “lonely dissent” will be for nothing.

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