When I served a mission in eastern Canada in the early 90s, there were many things I was grateful for (warm boots, wool suits, fairly normal food). But above all, I was grateful that I was sent to a region with very few black people, as I was not looking forward to having to defend something in the Church’s past that had deeply troubled even a relatively immature teenager with a limited knowledge of Church history and doctrine.
By that point, the ban on male black members having the priesthood had been lifted for more than a dozen years. Yet, it still bothered me. And it seemed far from a settled issue. Plenty of influential writings from top Church leaders could be found in any ward house library that linked all black people back to Cain and postulated that they were “less valiant” in the pre-existence – hence, no priesthood. I never believed this, and would have had a very difficult time trying to teach this nonsense with a straight face. Luckily, I never had to.
I share that background to explain why – at Sunstone West this past weekend – I took such a keen interest in a screening of the film “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.” Produced by Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, this movie goes through the history of black people in the Church and the evolution of the priesthood ban, which is largely “credited” to Brigham Young. Apparently, he evolved (or de-volved) in his views, as the movie had some interesting early quotes from him that were far more kind and tolerant towards blacks than some of his later whoppers. The historical context painted by the film shows an influx of Mormon converts from the southern states who brought their slaves to Utah. Henceforth, Young made the decision to make Utah into a slave-friendly territory. Another bit of historical context that I don’t remember being mentioned in the film is that the Democratic Party (then pro-slavery) was also more tolerant of plural marriage, which was likely another factor in the decision.
Fascinating as the history was, the movie was far more touching for me on a personal level. I was utterly floored by the powerful testimonies shared by the many black LDS members interviewed on camera. Many of these folks joined the Church while the ban still existed. One African-American sister shared the heartbreaking observation that the first time she was ever called a “nigger” was in the Salt Lake temple. Yet, she was far from angry. Like many others of all races, her life had been touched in a positive way by the Gospel. That many of these folks retained a love and loyalty to an organization that had rejected them for so long was amazing. The Church apparently did not sponsor this project, but it should buy every copy that it can and send it out to all four corners of the Earth. Seriously, who better to share the hopeful message of the Gospel than a group of people who consistently getting the short end of the stick.
Another interesting tidbit from the film was a story about Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray, retired pastor of the First AME Church of Los Angeles (which was founded by a former slave of Mormon pioneers). Murray shares a story on camera that he was once invited to meet with then-President Hinckley at the Church Office Building. At that meeting, he says Hinckley apologized to him for the Church’s participation in the slavery issue and for its part in perpetuating prejudice against black people. How broad he meant that is arguable, but it certainly seems a long way from just three decades ago.
Ms. Young was there and hosted a lively discussion afterwards. She is working on getting the film distributed. Apparently, Howard University has agreed to show it on its PBS station. Hopefully, BYU does the same. Anyone interested should start bugging their local PBS station. And maybe some e-mails to Netflix to spark their interest wouldn’t hurt, either.
Basically, two thumbs up here. Despite the lousy economy, I would heartily recommend dipping into your wallet for $25 to buy the DVD (it can be found at
) And no, I’m not getting a cut. Thanks for listening.