On my recent business trip, I visited Birmingham, Alabama and once my meetings were done, I decided to drive to downtown Birmingham to check out some sights. (The way I see it, I may never get back to some of these places again and I want to learn something of the history and culture of the places I visit.) When I arrived at the Civil Rights Institute, it was closed, so I walked across the street to Kelly Ingram park which was the site of a number of rallies and today has several sculptures memorializing what happened there. Shortly after my arrival there, I was greeted by Juan, a homeless black man who said he was a Vietnam veteran. He rode up to me on his small mountain bike and offered to give me a tour of the park. I figured that was his way of earning money to feed himself, so I agreed. Turns out that Juan was a 16 year old boy in 1963 and was involved in some of the civil rights protests at that time. He gave me first-hand descriptions of the police brutality, including the dogs and the water cannons used to push back the protestors. As we walked around the park, gave me some historical insights into the surrounding areas, including the 16th Street Baptist Church that was bombed in 1963 which resulted in the deaths of four black girls. Click here for details on this turning-point event in the civil rights movement. Here are a few photos of the sculptures in the park:
I was glad to have met Juan since he gave me an eye-witness account of Dr. King’s visits there and the incredibly difficult experiences his people went through to secure equal rights. It’s hard for me to comprehend the sort of sentiment that would exclude certain people based on the color of their skin.
Of course, my own church has a history of racial exclusion, which many have tried to explain and which most have done so unsuccessfully. Until June 1978, black men were not allowed to hold the priesthood, effectively restricting them from leadership positions in the church and from entering the temple, sacred edifices where essential ordinances are performed. That all changed when then President Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors and the quorum of the twelve apostles received a collective confirmation that the time had now come to extend the blessings of the priesthood to all worthy members. This revelation came in response to a humble prophet’s plea for further light and knowledge from God on the subject of race.
My personal feeling is that due to the culture and climate of the world at the time the gospel was restored, Church members were not ready to fully accept blacks and so the restriction became a matter of policy. I do not believe that the Lord expressly forbad Church leaders from ordaining black men to the priesthood. It is possible that early church leaders simply assumed that black were ineligible based on overwhelmingly pervasive cultural beliefs in the inferiority of black people justified by interpretation of obscure scripture references. The FAIR website for LDS Apologists (Defenders) has posted some enlightening articles on the issue which you can read by clicking here.
I assured Juan that despite the church’s previous policy, today black men and women are fully accepted into the LDS Church. He told me that he had met an LDS family who had recently moved to Birmingham and that they invited him to church. Juan, who recently lost his wife and two daughters in a car accident, told me that the Mormon family he had met explained the principle of eternal families and he was obviously touched by the knowledge that he could be with his family in the next life. When I paid him his $5 for the tour, I pulled out a copy of the Book of Mormon which I had with me and offered it to him. He said that he already received one from that family, so I hope he reads it.
Anyway, the whole experience had a profound influence on me. It reminded me of an important national movement that I hadn’t considered much since much of it occurred before I was born. When the founding fathers stated that “All men were created equal,” they weren’t really including blacks or women for that matter. Both groups have had to struggle over the years to gain equal rights, and in some ways they are still struggling.
I am grateful that the civil rights movement helped prepare the Church to fully accept all of God’s children into its ranks. As it states in the Book of Mormon: “All are alike unto God, black and white, bond and free, male and female.”
P.S. Here’s a great talk by Bruce R. McConkie on the subject.