“[I]t is a moral evil for any person…to deny any human being the right…to every privilege of citizenship”: Civil Rights in General Conference, 1963

By September 27, 2008

Although it has been described as such, the following document is not an official declaration by the First Presidency supporting civil rights. It wasn’t even written by the First Presidency, but rather by Sterling M. McMurrin. However, President Hugh B. Brown read the statement as part of his October 1963 General Conference address with the approval of Pres. McKay and it was later reprinted in the Deseret News as a quasi-official statement of the Church’s position on civil rights. The statement was drafted in an attempt (that proved to be successful) to avoid protests at conference by the NAACP, which had requested and was denied a meeting with the First Presidency to discuss the Church’s position on civil rights legislation in Utah.┬áDespite its semi-official status, the document is an anomaly, a lone representation of racial liberalism in a sea of conservatism. Aside from Brown, Church leaders had little good to say about civil rights or the plight of Blacks in America during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, with Apostle Mark E. Peterson calling racial segregation the plan of heaven and Apostle Ezra Taft Benson arguing that the civil rights movement was a puppet of Soviet Communism.

During recent months, both in Salt Lake City and across the nation, considerable interest has been expressed in the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the matter of civil rights. We would like it to be known that there is in this Church no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed.

We say again, as we have said many times before, that we believe that all men are the children of the same God, and that it is a moral evil for any person or group of persons to deny any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship, just as it is a moral evil to deny him the right to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience.

We have consistently and persistently upheld the Constitution of the United States, and as far as we are concerned this means upholding the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States.

We call upon all men, everywhere, both within and outside the Church, to commit themselves to the establishment of full civil equality for all of God’s children. Anything less than this defeats our high ideal of the brotherhood of man.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism From the Archives Race


  1. Subtext?

    Comment by Nitsav — September 27, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  2. I was reading Prince’s bio this morning.

    Comment by David G. — September 27, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

  3. Ah. Ok then. I assume this was a subtle SSM post… ­čÖé

    Comment by Nitsav — September 27, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  4. Haha, ok. I suspected that’s what you were getting at, but I wanted you to say it, not me. No, this post has nothing to do with SSM or Prop 8, and I’d like the comments from here on out to reflect that.

    Comment by David G. — September 27, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

  5. I don’t know about subtext, but this post brings something else to mind. The ongoing tension between Benson and Brown is such an amazing subject. With their regular conference-time jabs at each other it was almost a throw-back to the public contestation among general authorities in the 19th century (almost always between Brigham and _fill in the blank with one of many opponents_) I don’t see these moments as negative in any way. I would be happy to see more of that today–let us have a little sense of the pushing and pulling, the honest intellectual and spiritual disagreements among church leaders that tell us they aren’t automatons. I know they want to emphasize the harmony, but I think maybe there can be both.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 27, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  6. SC, indeed. The back and forth was remarkable. Quinn’s chapter on it is pretty good stuff, and I’d like to get my hands on Dan Combs’ MA thesis on Mormon anti-Communism from 1900-1970, to see what he adds.

    Comment by David G. — September 27, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  7. Thanks for posting this, David. Did Combs publish parts of his thesis anywhere as articles?

    Comment by Christopher — September 27, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  8. Not that I’m aware of, although I’ve heard that he was trying to get something together for JMH, but that was over a year ago. He’s at the U, I think, so maybe Jared can ask him.

    Comment by David G. — September 27, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  9. I find it fascinating that general authorities would have non-general authorities write their conference speeches for them. I wonder if this still happens?

    Comment by Mark Brown — September 27, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

  10. I know at least one GC ghostwriter.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 27, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

  11. I can add a second witness to Stapley’s. They do indeed exist. Although the ones I know of that research and write the talks are within the church’s organizational structure (including at BYU). No one like McMurrin does so today.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 27, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  12. #5:The ongoing tension between…
    I am old enough to recall those days. I think most members knew of the split, and maybe had a side, but were not troubled by it.
    Sending Benson to Germany, and bringing Brown and Tanner down from Canada, were topics of discussion.

    Comment by Bob — September 27, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

  13. That’s exactly correct Bob. And that was what was so great about it. People knew and I doubt that anyone left the church over it. Thanks for adding your experiential angle.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 27, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  14. I am very much saddened that there is not a figure like Hugh B. Brown or N. Eldon Tanner for my generation (or more specifically for me). Elder Jensen saying “I am a Democrat” never seems to do it for me.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 27, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  15. The absence of a strong proponent for progressive values among the brethren is indeed intriguing. But I think that in part reflects the tendency among the brethren since the 1980s or so to appear to be above politics. No one has emerged to take ETB’s place as a strong proponent of conservatism, either.

    Comment by David G. — September 27, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

  16. David,

    An article that might interest to you is Gary Bergera’s “Tensions in David O. McKay’s First Presidencies” found in Journal Mormon History 33:1.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — September 27, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

  17. Thanks, Joe. I scanned through that article when it first came out, but I need to go back and read it carefully. Thanks for the reminder.

    Comment by David G. — September 27, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  18. “No one has emerged to take ETB?s place as a strong proponent of conservatism, either.”

    That is partially because ETB was so extremely right wing. Packer, Oaks, and somewhat now Nelsen seem to be filling the conservative role quite well. Maybe it is not partisan, but it is political.

    Since the 1970’s we have very much become one with political conservatism is so many ways. Not much need to push it.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 27, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  19. yet the church has taken positions not strictly conservative, such as the comments against Utah legislation against illegal immigrants.

    Also while I think N. Eldon Tanner was definitely not ETB Bircher I do think he was conservative minded. The Alberta Social Credit Party was not seen as light friendly party of pseudo socialists believe me.

    Comment by Jon W — September 27, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  20. Jon W,

    “light friendly party of pseudo socialists”

    What does that mean?

    Either way he was more egalatarian minded on economics. Social Credit was a bit of a religious fundamentalist movement, so it was not liberal by today’s standards on social issues. It would later become more reactionary (before disappearing), but I would argue that in Tanner’s time it was on the progressive side.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 28, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  21. #20: I am only a witness, not an expect on the Benson, Brown, Tanner times (and but a teenager then).
    Benson was considered too political considering his Church calling. Brown and his nephew Tanner, were considered, by SOME, (being from Canada), as socialists and carpet baggers. But MOST (my personal opinion), as ‘lions’ protecting Mckay in his failing years.

    Comment by Bob — September 28, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

  22. Wow, that’s fascinating Bob, especially the part about Brown and Tanner being considered carpet baggers. It’s remarkable considering that now most Mormons that I know want more international diversity among the 12, not less. Foreignness seems to have taken on a very different meaning in the last 4 decades.

    Comment by David G. — September 28, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

  23. #21:

    Thanks Bob. To be honest as someone born in 1976 and raised in the east, I have little direct experience with this stuff.

    Of course, for me, being a Canadian Socialist would be a good thing.

    I do think that it is important to view them first in their role as apostles.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 28, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

  24. #22: Most of Utah was settled by the foreign born. Most early GAs had mothers or Grandmothers who were foreign Born. My young grandfather, traveled by boat and train to Utah with John Widtsoe. Names like Benson, Petersen, Neilson, are Scandinavian. The Utah Church started out very foreign.
    #23: ” I do think that it is important to view them first in their role as apostles. I fully agree. I don’t recall anyone ever challenging Brown or Tanner’s loyalty to the Church, their person, or their commanding role as Apostles.

    Comment by Bob — September 28, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  25. The thing that sticks out to me out to me about the discussion and the original post is how much the definition of progressive political discourse has changed over fifty years. We have now lived in a era when President James E. Faust, a Democrat and a fervent supporter of Civil Rights at the time of President McKay, has stood as the epitome of mainstream Mormonism. I think a majority of Mormons would probably agree with the substance of the statement read by President Brown so many years ago; President Hinckley condemned racism from the pulpit of General Conference. What was once considered progressive, President Brown’s statement, has now entered mainstream Latter-day Saint understandings.

    So my question is regarding whether this is a cyclical phenomenon or whether the capacity for General Authorities to embrace what might be considered progressive has its limits. Have progressive discourses changed so much that the brethren now unite in opposition to a world in moral decline? I simply wonder if we might utilize contemporary Mormon history as a gauge for understanding how Progressive discourses have changed over time. On the flip side, we might be able to see how progressive Mormon thought among General Authorities has either changed or remained constant over time.

    Comment by Joel — September 28, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

  26. Joel, excellent questions. I frame this more in terms of the changing status of racial discrimination among conservatives, rather than the changing nature of progressive discourses (although I’m sure that’s at play too). As I understand it, conservatives today applaud Brown and the 1964 Civil Rights Act because, in their estimation, both provide for a colorblind interpretation of the Constitution. Discrimination based on race (as opposed to gender and sexuality) has become so taboo (at least in public discourse) that it has become nearly impossible for anyone on either side of the ideological spectrum to defend it (well, liberals still promote benign racial classification/affirmative action).

    Comment by David G. — September 29, 2008 @ 10:17 am

  27. #25:*IF* there is a limit or capacity to how much “progressive discourse” the General Authorities can embrace, I think the internet is going to push that limit or capacity (?)

    Comment by Bob — September 29, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  28. I find it interesting that ETB left much of his conservative agenda aside after becoming President. There was more emphasis on the BoM , Home teaching, and internal pride. I, like many in the church, was a bit nervous when ETB became president. We wondered if a ?John Birch? philosophy would penetrate Church publications, directives, and political partisanship.
    There had been much wrangling and positioning during the McKay, Smith, Lee, and Kimball years. As it turned out, it was ?much ado about nothing?.

    Comment by PJD — September 30, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

  29. #28: I guess the same could be said of the American Civil War. Since the South ended up back with the North, it was… ?much ado about nothing?.

    Comment by Bob — September 30, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

  30. Aaargh. Somebody call the dogcatcher.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 30, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

  31. I guess that would be an apt analogy. Except of course for all of the dead people and destruction and everything.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 1, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  32. #31: All epic conflicts in history leave marks.
    There was a struggle within the GAs over many decades. It was not ?much ado about nothing?, and marks were left.

    Comment by Bob — October 1, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  33. Bob,
    Why wasn’t ETB’s agenda pushed while he was President? Do you think it had something to do with “Revelation”?

    Comment by PJD — October 1, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  34. PJD, while not discounting prophetic revelation received by ETB, it is worth noting that other factors probably played into ETB’s shift in emphasis. He was in terrible physical and mental health much of his term as president of the Church and the ideas and themes expressed in conference talks were often not his own, but rather those of his ghostwriters.

    Comment by Christopher — October 1, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  35. Thanks Christopher,
    I realize ETB’s first years as president were less than vibrant but still he was very much alert to church management and direction. All I ‘m trying to convey is that once a person receives full disclosure with a calling such as President, new truths are revealed, either spiritually or through direct protocol.
    It?s similar, in a way, to our two presidential candidates. They can promise many things about foreign policy, the economy, and taxes, but once they receive all the confidential information granted to a president, they become aware of currently held positions.
    I just open this up for discussion? that the Lord provides insights to current church presidents regarding their stewardships that others, apostles included, do not receive.

    Comment by PJD — October 1, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

  36. #33:I don’t know. There are better people on this blog to answer you. Again, I claim only to be a old witness and book reader.

    Comment by Bob — October 1, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

  37. David, did you get the email I sent to the JI address?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — October 8, 2008 @ 8:17 am

  38. I’m looking at it now. I’ll respond via the email.

    Comment by David G. — October 8, 2008 @ 8:29 am

  39. […] Civil Rights in General Conference, 1963 […]

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