Race Relations

It will be 30 years this June, 2008, since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began ordaining its members of African descent to the priesthood.

It was a pivotal moment in Church history, with implications not only for members in the United States but for the Church worldwide.

The enthusiasm with which the change in practice was greeted by Church members everywhere was widely noted at the time. Ken Woodward, religion writer for Newsweek, wrote in the magazine’s 19 June 1978 edition:

“The revelation caught noontime pedestrians in Salt Lake City by surprise. One man who had turned his portable radio to a church-owned station, called excitedly to knots of workers from the church headquarters: ‘They’ve just announced blacks can get the priesthood!’ James Dawson, one of two black members of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, told fellow Saints: ‘My faith is strengthened, I am very happy.’”

Elsewhere, excited white and black Church members called each other, honked car horns in the street and gathered in groups to discuss the announcement that came so suddenly following a profoundly significant spiritual experience for then-Church President Spencer W. Kimball and his fellow apostles in the Church.

Newsweek’s Woodward went on to predict that the next steps were likely to be the creation of black congregations under the direction of black elders.

Woodward’s prediction is telling. Even in 1978, a decade after the civil rights movement changed the face of America, worshipers in many churches across the land remained, in effect, segregated. Most blacks still worshipped with blacks, and most whites with whites. Few ordained black ministers preached to white congregations and discrimination in other forms still existed years later.

In fact, nothing like that happened in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There was never any policy of segregated congregations. Where Mormons of various racial or ethnic backgrounds have lived as neighbors, they have always worshiped together throughout Church history. Blacks had long before 1978 been baptized as members, preached from the pulpit and offered prayers in largely white congregations — none of which required the member to hold priesthood office.

After announcing the change in June 1978, the Church immediately began ordaining active black male members to priesthood office wherever they attended throughout the world. The first temple in Africa was built in South Africa in 1981 and two more — in Ghana and Nigeria — were dedicated more recently. 

The increase in ethnic diversity and international Church growth has been widely commented upon over the years since then. The Washington Post referred in a November 2007 headline to “the new face of global Mormonism.” The New York Times noted in a 2005 article that a new Church building in the city was “one of the most racially integrated congregations in Harlem, with about equal numbers of white and black worshippers.”

Amid the generally favorable media reports, there have been a few exceptions, especially in the heated atmosphere of an election campaign.

Ahmad Corbitt, an African-American who is president of a stake (equivalent to a diocese) in New Jersey, said that occasional charges of racism leveled at the Church should be “seen for what they are.”

“I think everyone understands that people say things for political reasons that just don’t square with the facts,” Corbitt said.

Corbitt leads one of the more diverse stakes in the Church. While membership is largely white, his twelve congregations each embrace people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.  Three of his congregations are Spanish speaking, and Corbitt’s own three-member presidency consists of a white counselor and a Tongan counselor.

“Anyone who says the Church is racist isn’t speaking from experience and has no idea of the racial harmony we enjoy as a Church family,” Corbitt said. “Perhaps some members of color have had a negative experience here or there in our 13-million-member church.  But in numerous meetings with members and leaders of the Church at every level over the years I have never experienced anything remotely resembling racism.”

Tony Parker, another African-American stake president, oversees nine congregations in the Atlanta area, including one headed by a black bishop. Parker has been a member of the Mormon faith for 25 years.

“I’m a better person now than I was back then,” Parker says. “I feel better about myself. They have been years of personal growth and enrichment.”

Parker says he has a simple answer to critics outside of the Church.  “Anyone who thinks the Church is racist just needs to come and see. They can sit in our church on the sidelines and watch, or talk to members.”

Asked if he had ever encountered a prejudicial comment from a fellow Latter-day Saint, Parker said: “My experience has been almost universally positive. Sure, there have been occasional bumps in the road, but nothing to damage my personal convictions.”

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