BYU, LDS Teachings, and the Civil Rights Movement

By March 5, 2009

Last year, as I was contemplating what research project I should engage in for my African-American history course, I came across a quote that intrigued me. In an article in BYU’s student newspaper the Daily Universe, 1960s student reporter Doug Wixom stated that “[t]he whole social protest movement passed right over the heads of BYU students that lived in Happy Valley” because students “were all so much in harmony with the basic values of the church that there was nothing to protest.” [1] This quote made me wonder–what was the actual reaction on BYU campus, if any, to the vast political and social events that were occurring in the United States during the time period? Were BYU students immune from social unrest or political uncertainty simply because they were shielded by their adherence to “the basic values of the church,” as Wixom postulates, or were the issues that were being discussed and protested on other college campuses throughout the nation similarly relevant and present at BYU?

What I have found in my research is that the latter view offers a more accurate description of the atmosphere at BYU during the 1950s and the 1960s. Over the past year, I have conducted extensive research in the Daily Universe from 1954 to 1965, and I hope ultimately to research through 1968. My research shows that BYU students, on the whole, were not immune or indifferent to the social issues that were occurring during this time period. Saying that they would be indifferent to national events fails to acknowledge that students would be affected by their own regional upbringings and that national events were not applicable within Utah. Instead, students were increasingly becoming aware of national and international events and were increasingly discussing and analyzing their positions as both college students and members of the LDS church in the context of such events. Whether discussing the dangers of communism (one of the most prevalent and constant topics of discussion in the newspaper in the 1950s to the early 1960s) or the intricacies of the civil rights movement, the actual interactions of BYU students in the Daily Universe shows that the political and social actions of this time period were important, and often debated or controversial, events and attitudes that affected the BYU campus.

As Americans, when we think about or study the civil rights movement, we tend to think of it in terms of the South and of the East coast. Doing so is inaccurate, as it assumes that the civil rights movement was not important or occurring in the Western part of the United States, and that the West was absolutely free from racial prejudice at the time (which many sources and events show is far from the truth). If we do think about the civil rights movement in the West, we probably think more in terms of states like California and not of potentially racially homogeneous states such as Utah. It is true that there was not a large African American population in Utah during the 50s and the 60s (in 1950, approximately 1,135 of Salt Lake’s 181,700 citizens were African American), but Utah does have a rich African American heritage that many do not know about. [2] Furthermore, it makes sense that a state that does not have a great amount of diversity could potentially be as prejudicial or perhaps more than a state that has a diverse population, as citizens of the state would see themselves as a majority and therefore treat other groups as minorities. Even more, in the case of BYU specifically, students came from all parts of the United States and would bring region-specific ideologies with them to the university. For these reasons, it is important to remember that the civil rights movement was occurring and had effects upon the Western part of the US, and specifically Utah and the BYU campus.

The fact that students did largely process social occurrences in terms of their own religious beliefs and standards is consistent with what we would assume from BYU students in general. However, different students processed and discussed their beliefs on race and the LDS church in different ways, and even different church leaders had varying ideas about the question of race in the church. I just watched the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons (I highly recommend it), and the documentary explores the variant ideas of race in the church, and specifically about how much of LDS racial views were really based upon the terminology used to discuss race. It shares one story where both then Elder David O. McKay and President Heber J. Grant wondered if there was a possibility to give exceptions to the policy of the priesthood ban. Although they decided that there was not, they also established that the priesthood ban was a LDS church policy and not LDS doctrine. The fact that it was policy and not doctrine reflects that many of the racial ideas within the church during much of the twentieth century were based upon racial folklore and teachings but not necessarily church doctrine.

Armand L. Mauss has argued that teachings on African Americans and the priesthood affected the way that LDS church members addressed racially specific events.[3] I would say that in the newspaper, LDS teachings on race, and specifically on racial attitudes towards the priesthood, were often tied to how students processed the events within the civil rights movement. In the first major student discussion on the issue of integration that occurred in the Daily Universe in late 1958 and early 1959 (following an editorial titled “Students Tired of Integration Issue?”, based on a national study that said college students on a whole were becoming more indifferent to the topic because of the length of national attention to the issue), the discussion on whether or not segregation was an appropriate or needed establishment included variant student interpretation on LDS racial teachings.[4] One group of students from the south cited comments that apostle Mark E. Peterson gave to BYU faculty in 1954:

“Not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a cafe where white people eat. He isn’t just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. It isn’t that he just desires to go to the same theater as he [sic] white people…It appears that the negro seeks absorption with the white race. He will not be satisfied until he achieves it by intermarriage. That is his objective and we must face it. We must not allow our feelings to carry us away, nor must we feel so sorry for the negroes that we will open our arms and embrace them with everything we have. Remember the little statement that we used to say about sin, ‘First we pity, then endure, then embrace’…Now we are generous to the negro. We are willing that the negro have the highest kind of education. I would be willing to let every negro drive a Cadillac if they could afford it. I would be willing that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. But let them enjoy these things among themselves.” [5]

Now, for us who read this quote now, it is highly inflammatory and derogatory (and it makes me wonder what Elder Peterson would have thought about Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Pan-Africanism). It is important to remember that this was not the sole view of church leaders towards race; some leaders taught ideas that were even more incendiary while others taught much more tolerant ideologies. The southern students, however, used Elder Peterson to support their argument that segregation was needed in the south, considering Elder Peterson’s “among themselves” comment. They interpreted the racial teachings of this LDS leader, and specifically the fact that blacks were not given the priesthood, as supporting the secular institution of segregation. However, other students who wrote in felt as though it was incorrect to interpret religiosity and race in such a manner. One student in particular, Peter Crnkovic, argued that LDS church policy did not support secular segregation, arguing that segregation did apply to “the highest and most sacred of covenants: marriage and the priesthood,” but that those were the only venues in which any type of separation between the races should occur.[6] In a time when the meaning of race was frequently discussed and debated, established LDS teachings on race in terms of the priesthood and marriage remained recognizable ideas, but it seems that the interpretations of what that meant in terms of secular and religious interaction varied and were largely dependent upon racial folklore than actual church doctrine.

Over my next few posts, I will explore the civil rights movement as discussed within the Daily Universe during the 1950s and the 1960s. We will see how students reacted to and interacted with ideas of race and religion, how they were contradictorily highly knowledgeable and ignorant of the movement and racial considerations, and how the civil rights movement was something that was both applicable to and being waged within the state of Utah. I will also discuss and analyze articles of particular significance or interest (you might be surprised about how the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were talked about in the paper). What I hope to illustrate is that the discussion of the civil rights movement in the Daily Universe shows us that the movement was something that was occurring in the Western part of the United States and within Utah, and that BYU students during this time period were largely involved with the social issues of the 1950s and 1960s.

__________________________________________________________________

[1]. Jacob Terry, “BYU Remains Stable During 1960s,” Daily Universe, November 15, 2005.

[2]. Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 263.

[3]. Armand L. Mauss, All Abram’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 220.

[4]. Daily Universe, “Students Tired of Integration Issue?”, Daily Universe, December 5, 1958.

[5]. Sharon Marks et al., letter to the editor, Daily Universe, December 10, 1958.

[6]. Peter Crnkovic, letter to the editor, Daily Universe, January 5, 1959.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. I look forward to more.

    I have a missionary diary from the mid 1950’s which records a visit by Elder Peterson. It notes, fairly ardently, Peterson’s position on intermarriage and characterization of it as a sin.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 5, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

  2. Thank you, Ardis S.

    This sounds very interesting, and I’ll look forward to the rest of the series.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 5, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

  3. Ardis, this is very interesting stuff, and I look forward to your posts, especially those treating how Malcom X and the Nation of Islam was seen by students.

    Have you done any comparison between the Daily Universe and school newspapers of other conservative Christian colleges covering Civil Rights?

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

  4. Ardis, I think you’ve got a great project. You’ve found some great primary sources that move us beyond what church leaders have said about race and civil rights and reveal how LDS students were interpreting and reading those statements. I know there were probably only a handful of LDS black students at BYU at the time, but it would be great if you find any letters reflecting their perspectives and reactions.

    I also like that you situate your arguments within the West. Were most of the letters written by Mormon Corridor students, or were they from all over the country? The Mormon Corridor letters would be especially interesting for what they’d reveal about western (white) conservatism.

    Comment by David G. — March 6, 2009 @ 12:57 am

  5. Great stuff, Ardis; I view the letters to the editor in the DU nowadays as both hilarious and frightening at the same time–maybe in fifty years they will be used in some scholarly treatment like this.

    Comment by Ben — March 6, 2009 @ 1:29 am

  6. “letters to the editor in the DU nowadays as both hilarious and frightening”

    Yeah, what made you think to focus on the Daily Universe, Ardis S.? I suppose the student paper is likely one of the best records of student opinions, but at the same time it’s kind of an off-the-wall source. Did you have some sort of a-ha moment?

    I look forward to future posts.

    Comment by Hunter — March 6, 2009 @ 2:26 am

  7. This is pretty cool, Ardis. I eagerly await the next installment.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — March 6, 2009 @ 2:41 am

  8. Christopher (#3), I have not yet looked at other conservative Christian colleges, but I think that would be an interesting analysis to conduct. Martin Luther King once stated that racial prejudice was more present in religions and religious meetings more than any other place in the United States, and so I wonder if other Christian colleges would have similar discussions occurring, with both what we now perceive as positive and negative attitudes towards the movement, and if you could find a connection between sect doctrines and the attitudes portrayed. Thanks for the insight!

    David G. (#4), many of the letters were not just from students from Utah, although I believe that a large percentage of BYU students at the time would probably have been from the region (I’m trying right now to track down how I can get more specific BYU enrollment info from the period). Who wrote in was largely dependent upon the topic–for example, most of the responses to the editorial I mentioned were from students from the South defending their regional ideologies. I do think most of the articles and letters do reflect Western conservatism, and I’ll talk about that more with the additional articles, editorials, and letters I discuss.

    Ben and Hunter (#5 and #6), I agree with you about the current state of the letters to the editor. I have officially decided that I cannot read the present version of the Daily Universe’s letters to the editor without getting horribly upset over something ridiculous said in the letters. I think one does have to be careful about the treatment of the letters–they don’t necessarily reflect a larger cohesive attitude or belief of the entire BYU student population, but they do show how certain students felt about different things, and I think there is even more value in studying the conflicting ideas that are discussed in that printed venue. Hunter, I chose the topic at first because I was immensely curious about how the movement was discussed by students and the journalists at BYU. Frankly, I was expecting it to show prejudice, and while prejudice definitely came across in many of the articles, tolerance and forward thinking also came through in other materials.

    Sorry, this is pretty long…I guess we can consider it my post 1 1/2.

    Comment by Ardis S — March 6, 2009 @ 3:53 am

  9. Another thought: The Peterson quote is just crying out for a gendered analysis. Does gender similarly shape the DU sources, Ardis?

    There’s also an interesting class angle.

    Comment by David G. — March 6, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  10. As a 20th century historian, I just have to say: hooray! Someone is using 20th century sources to remind us that Mormons have 20th century history too! Thanks Ardis, keep up the good work.

    Comment by jeans — March 6, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  11. Can you include 1969 in your research? During football season of 1969, 14 black players were kicked-off of the Wyoming football team for requesting to protest (wear black arm bands) during the upcoming game against BYU.

    As a Wyoming grad and a Mormon, I find the episode particularly shameful. I have been wondering if there was much (if any) reaction in Provo.

    Comment by L-d Sus — March 6, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  12. A recent article on the “Black 14”.

    Comment by L-d Sus — March 6, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

  13. I remember when BYU had to cancel an away game against San Jose State in the late 60s…scary stuff. Elder Benson called Martin Luther King a communist agitator and said that the civil rights movement was phony….The black panthers were not pleased. I was stunned that Eldridge Cleaver later joined the church.

    Comment by stevie — April 1, 2009 @ 8:19 am


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