I was born in 1955, a remarkable year for Civil Rights in the United States of America. It was the year of Rosa Parks and Emmett Till. And, of course, the LDS Church had its priesthood restriction in place at that time, and maintained it until I was twenty-three. I heard the news of the lifting of the ban when I was teaching in Mexico, and so heard it in Spanish.
I taught Sunday school a few days after getting the news, and found some young people quite confused over the change. Hadn’t Brigham Young said that the restriction would be in place until the millennium? I had no good answer, but simply stated that President Kimball had received revelation in the temple. That was enough for me.
Since that time, of course, I have become intimately acquainted with the history and issues surrounding the restriction. I continue to believe that President Kimball and those with him on June 1, 1878 received a revelation instructing them to end the restriction. I do not, however, believe that the restriction was imposed by God.
My co-author/co-producer, Darius Gray, and I have been writing and speaking on this subject for over a decade now, approaching some difficult questions in a spirit of faith. When we talk about the restriction, audience members almost always want to say where they were when they got the news that it had been lifted. During his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney handled the whole issue of racism in his religion by talking about his tearful reaction to that 1978 news. I appreciate the stories, but have found myself somewhat uncomfortable with the paradigm which hosts them.
For the most part, it’s white folks who tell how wonderful the news was for them—and certainly, Gene England’s perception of the restriction being “The Mormon Cross” predicted the joy white Latter-day Saints would feel when the burden was lifted. However, we are still talking about what it was like for us whites. It’s quite a different thing for black Latter-day Saints, many of whom had been faithful for years, but most of whom didn’t join the church until after the restriction was lifted. I still grieve our tolerance of racist explanations for the restriction which suggest that blacks were cursed or less valiant in the pre-existence. Sadly, we are yet living with some of those ideas. Young missionaries often believe them, having received instruction from people of my generation who were raised to justify the ban with these myths. And I grieve the many black Mormons (including descendants of faithful pioneers) who left the church after being treated badly. For me, the real “long-promised day” is yet to come. That day will find us living truly as Latter-day Saints, and one in Christ. We will mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. I believe that long-promised day is arriving, and pray for it to come more quickly. When, during some future General Conference, the announcement comes that we have a new apostle (or two) of African descent, I will remember where I was and write about it with joy.
I love the words of Gordon B. Hinckley, delivered during the priesthood session of General Conference, 2006: “How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?”
That, for me, says it all.
Margaret Blair Young, a frequent award recipient from the Association for Mormon Letters, is a novelist and playwright best known for her historical fiction series co-written with Darius Gray regarding the African-American Mormon experience, Standing on the Promises.