By Margaret Young
I won’t give his real name. Apparently, he is a remarkable man, a supremely talented jazz musician who has played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. He joined the Church before the priesthood revelation in 1978 and so, as an African American, he understood that he would not have the same privileges as white Mormons. The Era magazine (precursor to the Ensign) did a story about him, which inspired at least one other Black musician to stay in the Church during some difficult times.
We wanted to interview him for our documentary on Black Mormons. I had already heard he left the Church years ago, after not being admitted to a sacrament meeting in the South while touring there. (All of my information is second or third hand, so I can’t be certain of anything. And given what we know about African Americans who joined the Church before the 1978 change, we can be pretty certain that his departure wasn’t capricious or simply the result of one unfortunate event.) We did finally find a way to contact him. His response was simply that he wasn’t interested in being interviewed. It appears that his Mormon life is a distant and perhaps bitter memory.
During our last editing session, as we prepared special features, we worked on one in which Darius Gray talked about his stretch of inactivity. That stretch came about after some overt prejudicial acts in 1972, which resulted in ALL of the young Black men Darius was working with ceasing any association with the Church. As we viewed the footage, tears came to Darius’s eyes, and he went into even more detail than what we had revealed on film. He talked about the pain of watching those young men leave, and about his own sense of betrayal. Those he had counted on to support him and the young men had fallen through, and the hurt was great enough that Darius quit church for several years (though he never really left it, he is quick to point out).
I thought Elder Wirthlin’s talk in Conference was particularly moving. He urged us to stand up for the ones who might be a little different. As a mother of one who is “different,” I found myself weeping when Elder Wirthlin spoke of defending a kid his playmates were bullying. Many memories passed through my mind and I thought, “I wish you had been there for my son, Elder Wirthlin.”
What if an Elder Wirthlin, or anyone else, had been present when those events occurred which took Darius Gray out for a time? I’d like to think he would have spoken up. What did we lose when someone in the South told the brother I referred to initially that he was forbidden entrance into that particular Mormon chapel?
One of my heroes is Elder Marion D. Hanks. Elder Hanks tells the story of Len and Mary Hope, whose family was not allowed to attend church with the white members, and so held monthly testimony meetings in their home in Cincinnati. (This was just prior to WWII.) Elder Hanks was one of the missionaries who attended those meetings with the Hopes, and became lifelong friends with Len and Mary. But none of the Hope children remained in the Church after their parents’ deaths. What did we lose when we lost them?
When I met my husband for lunch at the MTC and told him that the jazz musician had declined to be interviewed, he joined me in a moment of sorrow. He knew about the ward somewhere in the South, where someone had decided that a Black man couldn’t come inside the church. Bruce said, “Couldn’t they see? Didn’t they know that that is completely against the scriptures?”
When Darius Gray reflects about his years of inactivity, he wonders what good he might have done if he hadn’t been absent. It still hurts him. But I don’t want to place the onus on Darius, on Len Hope’s children, or on the jazz musician I previously mentioned. I want US to bear the burden, even by proxy for those of prior generations. Will some of our ancestors have to face the people they turned away? Will they glimpse the generations affected by the absent welcome? What can we do to right the wrong and reclaim what was lost? Is there any way we can repent for them? Can we, all these years later, stand up for those who were cast aside as “different”?