BYU and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968

By December 22, 2009

Over the past year, I have published several posts on JI about my research on how the civil rights movement was discussed in BYU’s student newspaper, the Daily Universe, during the 1950s and 1960s. I have recently begun studying a new aspect of this research that has proved particularly interesting and enlightening – how civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was talked about in the pages of the Daily Universe in the latter part of the 1960s and then again in the 1980s as the national discussion on establishing a federal holiday in honor of King came to Utah. In the next few posts on JI, I will analyze how students discussed King’s role as a civil rights leader in 1968, 1969, and the 1980s.

(When discussing King, I think that it is important to remember that King was a major leader of civil rights, but he was not the only leader. In the US, we often think of the civil rights movement as a cohesive program in which millions of people worked together towards the exact same goals. I am ashamed to admit that it was not until college that I learned that there were many different groups (SCLC, SNCC, Black Muslims, Black Panthers, etc.) who had different perspectives on how to gain greater equality in the United States. I’ve included discussion on many groups and civil rights philosophy in my larger research project, but it is interesting to focus on such a prominent figure of King and analyze from a historical perspective was written about him in the recent past).

As may be expected from the influence of the civil rights movement in American history, news articles in the Daily Universe consistently discussed the civil rights movement and its leaders. On the day before King’s murder, the civil rights news reached the local stage as Georgia state legislator Julian Bond spoke in Provo on the motives behind enduring African-American actions towards equality. Bond was an original member and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and his comments were based in his views on what the motivations were for black men and women engaged in civil rights. [1] The Daily Universe published an article about Bond’s speech on the front page of the 4 April 1968 newspaper.

While news of Julian Bond’s visit to Utah was recorded on the paper’s title page, there is no way to know whether or not the Daily Universe would have published news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death as front-page news. [2] Because the school went on spring break on 5 April 1968 – the day that most newspapers first reported on King’s assassination – there was no Daily Universe published on the fifth or for several days afterwards. When the newspaper returned from hiatus on 10 April, the only mention of King’s death in the paper was a follow-up editorial based on an editorial published on the 4 April. In that first editorial, the anonymous author had stated that American soldiers killed in Vietnam made “the ultimate sacrifice.” [3] The editorial on the 10 April built upon this rhetoric and stated that King had made the ultimate sacrifice, and that it was “ironical” that “a man who preached non-violence died so violently.” [4] The author then called upon students to recognize the important nature of King’s murder, as they lived in a country “where people were murdered for their beliefs” and yet students might read the paper and complain about the weather during their vacation. [5] The editorial was both an empathetic discussion of King’s murder and a call for students to avoid complacency.

For one student, however, the editorial did not compensate for the lack of news articles on King’s death. On 16 April, student Barbara McDaniel stated her dismay at the newspaper’s second-page discussion of King’s death solely in a letter to the editor. She accused BYU’s administration of feeling as though a crisis had been averted, as they did not have to react to King’s death on campus. She also stated that the prejudice she perceived as existing at BYU meant that people at BYU were “co-conspirators with the assassin of Martin Luther King.” [6] Using civil rights rhetoric from King himself, McDaniel called upon fellow students to take accountability in civil rights inequalities and shared her own “dream” that “freedom will ring from ‘Y’ mountain.” [7]

McDaniel’s strongly worded criticism and call to action initiated further discussion on the topic of King’s death in the following days. In an editor’s note following McDaniel’s first letter, the Daily Universe’s editor tried to quell McDaniel’s accusations by stating that the newspaper had not published articles on King because after spring break, the story of his death was already “dead news” (an insensitive comment that seems to be more of an unfortunate word choice than purposeful degradation). [8] In response, McDaniel wrote again about the offense she took at the Daily Universe’s reporting (or lack of it) on King’s assassination. She cited other newspapers that published news of the event on the front page for several days, and accused the university of practicing isolationism in its unwillingness to acknowledge “an important event affecting the entire world” such as King’s death. [9] Of most interest, however, was McDaniel’s conclusion to her letter. She expressed indignation with the use of the term “dead news,” stating instead that “[a] great man’s death and a tribune to his life is never ‘dead news’ as we testify to every Sunday.” [10] For McDaniel, King’s death was a type of ultimate Christian sacrifice that was to be kept in memory and personal worship.

Viewing King as a Messianic figure would now be (and often is) accepted and discussed by members of the LDS Church, but such was not the case in 1968. While McDaniel’s personal interpretation of her religious beliefs led her to compare King and Christ, the editor opposed such a comparison. In an editor’s note following McDaniel’s letter, the editor simply said, “Your comparison is in poor taste.” [11] As a fellow member of the LDS Church, the editor saw any comparison of King’s sacrifice to Christ as blasphemous. Two days later, another BYU student expressed his own discontent with McDaniel’s expressed opinions on King. He employed another rhetoric often used in the newspaper to support the arguments of Southern students – that King was not someone to be admired, but instead an individual who had frequently disobeyed laws, which went against the LDS principle of “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” [12]

As seen from the discussion of King’s death in the Daily Universe in 1968, BYU students often expressed their attitudes towards civil rights in a manner that evoked LDS teachings and principles. However, students varied greatly in how they viewed LDS teachings in relation to race relations and equality. These teachings affected the way that students processed the civil rights movement, but students often considered these racial teachings in terms of their own personal and regional paradigms. In a time when the meaning of race was frequently discussed and debated, established LDS teachings on race and the priesthood remained recognizable ideas, but it seems that the interpretations of what that meant in terms of secular and religious interaction differed from student to student.
[1] Dave Fitzpatrick, “Julian Bond Speaks Out For ‘Change’,” Daily Universe, 4 April 1968.
[2] By this point, major civil rights events were mainly seen as front-page material, and had been since the middle part of the decade, so it can be assumed that King’s murder would have been reported on the front page.
[3] Daily Universe, “The ‘What-Kind-Of’ Sacrifice,” 4 April 1968.
[4] Daily Universe, “The Irony Of It All,” 10 April 1968.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Barbara J. McDaniel, Letter to the Editor, Daily Universe, 16 April 1968.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Daily Universe, “Editor’s Note,” 16 April 1968.
[9] Barbara J. McDaniel, Letter to the Editor, Daily Universe, 24 April 1968.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Daily Universe, “Editor’s Note,” 24 April 1968.
[12] Joseph Smith, “Twelfth Article of Faith,” 1842.


  1. Excellent, Ardis; this is great stuff.

    Did it say where Barbara McDaniel was from? I’m curious about what her background is.

    Comment by Ben — December 22, 2009 @ 6:43 am

  2. I’d be fascinated to see a comparison of such school papers from say a school like UCLA, or Harvard. Or is it that BYU was such a bubble (then and now) that there are no comparisons? Except maybe racist white only schools in the South?

    Comment by Dan — December 22, 2009 @ 8:42 am

  3. Interesting, Ardis. Did you run across many people seeking to discredit MLK and his legacy by calling him a lecher and a communist?

    Comment by David G. — December 22, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  4. This is fascinating, Ardis. When I read this, “my research on how the civil rights movement was discussed in BYU’s student newspaper, the Daily Universe, during the 1950s and 1960s,” I thought surely there can be few more depressing projects than this one. But the initial responses to King’s death surprise me and are encouraging.

    I would love to hear any “single-strap backpack” type raging controversies in a teacup that you find back then. I’m sure some things about BYU never change.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — December 22, 2009 @ 10:26 am

  5. Ardis this was a great piece. Having lived throught all the MLK Jr. era this was very enlighting about BYU and it’s paper. I don’t believe at the time we fully understood the effect MLK Jr. and others had on our history. I think for the good for the most part.
    ‘Two days later, another BYU student expressed his own discontent with McDaniel’s expressed opinions on King.’ This person might as well lump the Founding Fathers into the same group as MLK Jr. People standing up when government is wrong is not disobeying the law but correcting an injustice. God bless those people.

    Comment by Mex Davis — December 22, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  6. I was at BYU when MLK was assasinated and none of this surprises me. The school, unfortunately, was not a place where many people cared about MLK or black people generally. If I remember correctly, the Dave Fitzpatrick you cite was a nonmember and may have been the only person who cared enough to interview Julian Bond.

    Comment by Don — December 22, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  7. Great work Ardis. This is really an interesting topic and thanks for addressing it objectively. Can we hope you’ll be producing an essay for publication through all your research?

    Comment by Skeptic — December 22, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  8. Ardis, where are you researching, BYU? Microfilm? Just curious where you are getting access to the archived issues.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — December 22, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

  9. Ardis (it still feels weird to type that), this is surprising, and great. Most of us, me included, just assume we know what contemporary attitudes to major issues must have been, and it’s valuable to have you go back and actually look at the record. I look forward to more posts based on your study.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 22, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  10. I was just looking this week for information about MLK Jr’s reputation among Mormons- my missionary brother asked me about it after a the OD2 Sunday School lesson a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t able to find much, so this is super helpful. Thanks!

    Comment by Ariel — December 24, 2009 @ 1:45 am

  11. Thanks for a great post.

    It was interesting to read how people appealed to the gospel in support of their different positions. It sounded a lot like current discussions on immigration, race, taxes, environment…well everything. I guess some things never change.

    Comment by L-d Sus — December 25, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  12. I was watching the evening news in Helaman Hall on 4 April 1968 when about 5:05 either Cronkite, Huntley, or Brinkley announced the shocking news that MLK had been shot in Memphis. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach: for some reason I was sure he’d been murdered. Perhaps the first reports of the nature of King’s gunshot wounds made that clear.

    Are you sure spring break started on April 5–a Friday?–and ended on April 10–a Wednesday? I think I flew to California to decide where I was going to continue my education that spring break, and I think it was before the assassination. But my personal memory is not that great. I assume you’re not relying on a gap in the microfilm. I know a BYU master’s thesis assumed “The Valley Tan” ended a week before its actual demise on 29 February 1860–apparently because the BYU microfilm lacked that most interesting final number.

    You are right. In the dorm basement that night BYU students expressed their attitudes towards civil rights in a manner that evoked LDS teachings and principles. And our views varied greatly: I, for one, left the religion in part because of the policies, then presented as doctrines, unchangeable sacred writ, that made God out to be a racist. A few of us in the room were horrified at the news, but most didn’t seem moved by it, and there were a vocal few who proclaimed it a good thing that the commie was dead. What do you suppose Ernest L. Wilkinson thought?

    I can testify that Barbara McDaniel was one brave lady. I wonder what happened to her.

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — December 26, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

  13. Ardis, thanks for this interesting post. Did you attempt to track down any of the participants in the editorial back-and-forth? Having worked in a few University newsrooms it is interesting to see your quick review of the few editorials and coverage. Hope to see more.

    Comment by BHodges — December 28, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  14. Thank you all for your insightful comments. I’m sorry for the delayed response, but I wanted to address a few of your comments and questions.

    Ben, I don’t know McDaniel’s background – she didn’t offer anything in her letters that explicitly addressed this. I am also interested in this – and I think I may try to get in contact with her and with Judy Geissler (who you will meet in my next post) – as BHodges asked about.

    Dan, I think that what happened at BYU could have happened at other non-Southern, less liberal schools in the US, as students from different backgrounds and beliefs tried to decide what their views on civil rights were. However, it does seem to me that much of the US had moved on from a focus on communism when it was still frequently discussed as a real threat at BYU, and so I’d be interested in seeing if the purported link between King and communism was discussed at such a level at other universities.

    Will, it does seem that the paper was indeed not published during that time period. The hard copy and the microfilm copies at the HBLL (which is where I’ve conducted this research) both contain a gap (which still could just simply mean a gap in what the library had for the paper), but the editor provides a timeline in his first editor’s note to McDaniel about how the paper was not published during that time period as a part of the justification for not publishing news on King’s death. Thanks for sharing your own experiences about being at BYU at this time!

    David G., There were a good amount of students who believed in ties between King and communism. That was something frequently invoked in 1968 and 1969 by BYU students. I’m personally grateful, though, for the students who actively spoke against those who believed in that connection.

    Skeptic, I do hope to publish this research in one format or another. I think it’s an integral part of BYU history, as the history of race in Utah and in the West.

    Comment by Ardis S — January 2, 2010 @ 12:34 am

  15. Thanks, Ardis, and welcome aboard. I agree it’s nice that there were divergent views on MLK and communism. What about MLK and adultery? Were there attempts to discredit him based on infidelity and/or defenses against those accusations?

    Comment by David G. — January 2, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

  16. Great stuff, Ardis. Keep it coming!

    Comment by Jared T — January 2, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

  17. I have not come across any discussions in the Daily Universe on King and adultery…it seems that the two main ways students at BYU tried to discredit him were through “communist ties” and through what students perceived as King’s inability to follow laws (I think those students did not totally understand the principles behind King’s method of civil disobedience). It is interesting that students did not use accusations of infidelity to discredit King…thanks for bringing up that point.

    Comment by Ardis S — January 2, 2010 @ 11:44 pm


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