BYU and Martin Luther King in 1969

By February 4, 2010

A year following the discussion of King?s life and death in 1968, 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. On 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.? [1] Geissler believed that King?s life was a medium through which she felt personal responsibility to actively support civil rights.

Several days after Geissler?s editorial, BYU held its first ?Brotherhood Week? on campus. The weeklong event was dedicated to expanding cultural and racial understanding at the university, and was probably partially in reaction to boycotts against the university?s sports teams due to the LDS priesthood ban. The campus event included a panel discussion on the causes and effects of prejudice, a clothing drive co-sponsored with the NAACP, and a display of policy statements from major civil rights groups on civil rights and the organizations? perceptions of BYU. [2] However, the reaction of several BYU students to Geissler?s editorial largely shadowed and contradicted the intended message of this campus Brotherhood Week. On 6 May 1969, the Daily Universe published a letter from Gary Olsen that was in response to Geissler. In his letter, Olsen referred to King as a ?trouble-making Communist? who had frequently broken U.S. laws, instigated violence, and did not merit comparison to America?s Founding Fathers. [3] Olsen employed language of the civil rights movement as Barbara McDaniel had done the year before, but while McDaniel used such rhetoric to call fellow students to action, Olsen did so to declare that he had a dream that Communism might no longer be ?disguised as a Christian crusade for civil rights.? [4]

From a second editorial published in the Daily Universe the following day, it is obvious that Olsen?s objection to Geissler?s editorial on King was not the only opposition voiced on BYU?s campus. 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.? [5] 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. [6]

The reactions of students who wrote letters to the editor during the following week further illustrate the varying ways in which BYU students processed their religious beliefs and regional upbringing in terms of the civil rights movement. Jerry Names echoed the statements of another student the previous year on how King?s methods of civil disobedience were unacceptable and Marxist. [7] Another student patronized the negative responses Geissler had received to her editorial and accused King of hypocrisy in his methods of nonviolence. [8] However, several students supported Geissler and expressed their own religious and personal beliefs as correlating with the principle of equality. Lon Wilcox stated that King was ?a man of principle? motivated by constitutional ideologies and that those at BYU who spoke disrespectfully about King were not themselves ?fit to earn anyone?s respect.? [9] Don Adams expressed his opinion that black students coming to BYU may wrongfully be considered Communist, due to the ignorant stances of many of his peers on the supposed ties between Communism and civil rights. Michael Vanhille denounced the idea that King?s methods of civil disobedience were corrupt, stating instead that King and other civil rights leaders would not have to encourage disobedience to unjust laws if white people had not ignored the spirit of the nation?s founding documents. He reminded his fellow students that the ?Founding Fathers broke laws a little more serious than parade ordinances to establish freedom for all Americans,? and then used an LDS scripture to rebuke those who had engaged in discriminatory contention in what was supposed to be Brotherhood Week. [10]

During the 1960s, the Daily Universe served as an important venue for students at Brigham Young University to learn about and discuss Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Students were influenced by LDS policies on race and the priesthood, but the way that they interpreted those teachings in relation to civil rights differed greatly. For some students, civil rights rhetoric was considered extreme and in violation of LDS beliefs about obeying national laws. Other students viewed racial equality as having a direct correlation with the Christian principles of loving one?s neighbor and adhering to personal beliefs and standards. The differences between students and the heated debates that occurred in the pages of the Daily Universe corroborate that BYU students assimilated their knowledge of LDS teachings largely in terms of their political and regional beliefs, and also indicates that the definitive social unrest of the 1960s greatly affected the lives of students living in ?Happy Valley.?

[1] Judy Geissler, ?In Memoriam: M. L. King,? Daily Universe, 30 April 1969.
[2] Ibid., ?Clearance Problems, But??Brotherhood Week? Begins,? Daily Universe, 5 May 1969.
[3] Gary L. Olsen, Letter to the Editor, Daily Universe, 6 May 1969.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Judy Geissler, ?Racial Bigotry: An Open Letter,? 7 May 1969.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Jerry Names, Letter to the Editor, Daily Universe, 12 May 1969.
[8] David Balmford, Letter to the Editor, Daily Universe, 15 May 1969.
[9] Lon Wilcox, Letter to the Editor, Daily Universe, 12 May 1969.
[10] Michael Vanhille, Letter to the Editor, Daily Universe, 12 May 1969.


  1. Ardis,

    Thank you for doing this work which I believe is a truly important endeavor. I just wanted to ask whether you think that it was individual interpretations of Mormon doctrine driving different interpretations of the Civil Rights Movement and MLK or whether these students were utilizing Mormon doctrine as a tool to justify their secular beliefs. I have been thinking about this question quite a bit lately–mostly because it requires a lot of interspection to try and determine whether individual interpretations of theology are internally produced, externally driven, or a little of both which is what I would argue. I think the difficulty comes because their is both a tradition of close readings and literalism in Mormonism as well as spiritual and individual interpretation.

    Comment by Joel — February 5, 2010 @ 8:16 am

  2. Excellent, Ardis. It took me a day before finally reading it, but I’m glad I finally did. Bless all those Judy Geisslers in the world.

    Comment by Ben — February 6, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

  3. Ardis, thank you again for this great post. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Jared T — February 10, 2010 @ 3:19 am

  4. Thank you all for your comments. Joel, from looking at these articles in the Daily Universe, it does seem that students interpreted their beliefs from a combination of religious and secular beliefs. I don’t think they necessarily used Mormon doctrine as a way to justify how they were thinking in an explicit manner, but especially given the differences in opinion during this time in the Church and in its leadership on how to treat the priesthood ban, it does seem that students were trying to assimilate their religious beliefs and their secular beliefs. Essentially what I’m saying is that I agree with you – it seems like it was a little bit of both, but the idea of religious doctrine seems to have been fluid at the time in terms of what the priesthood ban really meant.

    Comment by Ardis S. — February 11, 2010 @ 6:01 pm


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