BYU and Martin Luther King, Jr.

By January 18, 2016

Last weekend, while visiting Atlanta for the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, fellow JIer Ben P and I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historical Site. That we approached the historic Ebeneezer Baptist Church just a few minutes before 11 am on a Sunday morning I can attribute to nothing other than perfect synchronicity.[1] It was my first time visiting the site, and I was moved by what I witnessed. I was unable to attend sacrament meeting that day, but the pilgrimage to the King site was worship enough. I resolved to post something here at JI in commemoration of King, but could think of nothing that would do justice to either King or my visit last weekend.

So today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to highlight two posts from the Juvenile Instructor’s early years. Both were penned by former JI blogger, Ardis Smith, whose excellent original research on student responses to the Civil Rights Movement at BYU in the 1950s and 1960s deserves a much wider audience.[2] As part of her research, Ardis surveyed student responses to the April 1968 murder of the famed civil rights leader who we remember and whose legacy we celebrate today, in the student newspaper, the Daily Universe. Ardis examined the DU‘s coverage in the immediate aftermath of the murder, and the DU‘s discussion on the one year anniversary of King’s death. Much of the response from students is what you might expect (subtly and not-so-subtly racist condemnations of King’s civil disobedience, his Marxist views, and his rumored ties to Communist leaders, justified with citations to LDS teachings and scriptures), but Ardis also discovered and recovered the voices of those students who dared to speak up in support of King and the movement he led.

Among the voices of students who spoke up in support of King and the Civil Rights Movement’s aims in the 1960s were two female students. It is their voices, along with Ardis’s research, that I want to highlight here today. I do so as a Latter-day Saint, as a historian, and as a BYU alum. The brave stand taken by Barbara McDaniel and Judy Geissler deserve the attention of historians—they go a long way toward countering claims (common both then and now) that “the whole social protest movement passed right over the heads of BYU students that lived in Happy Valley”—and deserve the attention, admiration, and appreciation of Latter-day Saints and alumni of Brigham Young University.

In Ardis’s first post on “BYU and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968,” she quoted the reactions of several students to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, and concluded that “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.” Among those quoted is Barbara McDaniel, who penned a letter to the Daily Universe in response to the paper’s brief April 10 editorial commenting on King’s death a week earlier. Here’s Ardis:

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.” 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.”

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). 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. 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.” For McDaniel, King’s death was a type of ultimate Christian sacrifice that was to be kept in memory and personal worship.

In a follow-up post, Ardis turned her attention to the Daily Universe one year later, noting that in the wake of the first anniversary of King’s death, “a series of editorials and letters to the editor reignited the debate on King in a manner that reflected the deviating views of BYU students on civil rights.” Perhaps most notable was an editorial written by assistant news editor Judy Geissler:

In 30 April 1969, assistant news editor Judy Geissler wrote an editorial titled “In Memoriam: M. L. King.” Speaking to the idea of King’s life as a sacrifice to racial equality, Geissler declared that prejudicial words and attitudes had frequently led to the justification of discrimination, subjugation, and murder on the basis of race in the United States. She also provided a respectful biographical sketch on King in order to substantiate her own argument that BYU students should not only think about furthering equal rights but should “get out and DO something about it.” Geissler believed that King’s life was a medium through which she felt personal responsibility to actively support civil rights.

Angry condemnations from BYU students predictably followed (as did threats of violence), and in response Geissler penned a follow-up editorial:

In “Racial Bigotry: An Open Letter,” Geissler shared the backlash that she had experienced since the publication of her first editorial, which had included sixteen phone calls, several letters, accusations of Communist involvement, a threat “to burn a cross” in her living room, and the placement of a sign reading “Head Nigger” on her newspaper desk. Geissler believed that the refusal of many BYU students to acknowledge the need for improved racial equality in the United States reflected the “two-facedness of those who profess to love their fellow men while refusing to foster true brotherhood.” What is evident from this second editorial is that Geissler interpreted her religious beliefs as a Latter-day Saint to mean that she was to love her fellow man without regard to race, and that she was mystified and disillusioned by the “hypocrisy” that she viewed in her fellow students.

As a historian, I can’t help but want to know more about Barbara McDaniel and Judy Geissler, as well as more about the students who made verbal and physical threats. Who were Barbara McDaniel and Judy Geissler? Where was each from? What did they study at BYU? And what became of them?

As a BYU alum and Latter-day Saint, I simply want to thank them. I think their bravery and courage are a wonderful tribute to the memory of the man they spoke up for and defended.

_____________________

[1] It was there, in 1953, that King uttered, “I am [ashamed] and appalled that Eleven O’ Clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.”

[2] Some of that research can be read here, and additional portions that she shared at JI can be read here, here, and here.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Christian History Cultural History Current Events Memory Politics Race Women's History


Comments

  1. Great piece, Christopher. It was an amazing experience for me too to visit Atlanta for the AHA. I think that your post raises other important considerations as well regarding the interconnections between diverse Americans and the Civil Rights Movement, including Native Americans who had a very serious presence at BYU and in the LDS Church during that time. My husband also has discussed Democrat Mormons such as his grandfather and former Utah Congressman, David King, and their attitudes towards race relations during Martin Luther King’s era. See “My Grandfather and Civil Rights” at http://brianseditorials.blogspot.com/2014/03/my-grandfather-and-civil-rights.html to get a sense of how a respected Latter-day Saint leader tried to navigate those times.

    Comment by Farina King — January 18, 2016 @ 7:44 am

  2. Thanks, Christopher.

    I have to disagree with one point Ardis S. makes; I’ve spent enough time in newsrooms and around young journalists to know that using a term like “dead news” is neither accident nor oversight. There is little chance that that was not intentionally offensive. A followup with the then-student editors (and faculty advisors if still living) could be interesting, but what are the chances anyone would grant an interview or speak candidly on this topic?

    Comment by Amy T — January 18, 2016 @ 7:55 am

  3. These are great pieces of BYU history and great reminders. Thanks, Christopher.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 18, 2016 @ 8:51 am

  4. I was at BYU in 1968 and remember the shock and sadness at the news of King’s death. Maybe it was just my friends, but I remember that we were sad and upset about the news. I trace my liberal political views to my BYU political science professors.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — January 18, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

  5. Fascinating piece. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — January 18, 2016 @ 8:47 pm


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