How the NAACP brass and top Mormon leaders got on friendly terms — and plan to work together in the future

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS Church First Presidency members Dallin H. Oaks, Russell M. Nelson, the faith's president, and Henry B. Eyring at a news conference in the lobby of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.

In 1965, the NAACP led an anti-discrimination march in downtown Salt Lake City to protest the LDS Church’s racial policies at the time. A half-century later, national leaders of that historic black civil rights organization are in the Beehive State for a friendly landmark meeting with top Mormon officials.

These two groups — the NAACP and the governing LDS First Presidency — are set to issue an unprecedented joint statement Thursday morning.

And the extraordinary exchange traces its roots to a nearly decadelong friendship between two lawyers — Steve Hill, a white Utah Mormon, and Wilbur Colom, a black Mississippi activist.

Colom, who is acting as an NAACP special counsel, had a fleeting knowledge of Mormonism when he met Hill at a professional conference.

Back in 1975, Colom worked with Mark Cannon, a Mormon administrative assistant to Warren Burger of the United States. When the African-American attorney heard that the LDS Church barred black men and boys from its all-male priesthood and black women and girls from the faith’s temples, he was appalled.

Colom recalls telling Cannon: “If Mormons think God is saying I am inferior, they can’t be talking to God.”

Cannon assured Colom that the priesthood/temple ban would end — and, three years later, it did.

On June 8, 1978, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its priesthood would now be open to “all worthy male members.”

Then, in 2009, Colom met Hill through a mutual friend, and the two formed a fast friendship, including traveling to Africa together and with current NAACP President Derrick Johnson.

Colom and Johnson began looking at groups “that were strangers to us, ones we had very little contact with,” Colom says. “Those tended to be mostly conservative — with a flawed history.”

Last summer, an NAACP chapter in Mississippi partnered with an LDS stake (a regional group of congregations) on a service project. It was so successful that Colom wondered about forming a stronger bond with Mormon officialdom, so he called his buddy Hill.

In December, Hill reached out to an LDS general authority, who turned to apostle D. Todd Christofferson, who then invited the NAACP board and subcommittees — up to 100 people — to meet in Salt Lake City for the first time in that black organization’s storied 109-year history.

One problem? They were already scheduled to meet in Tampa.

Without much arm-twisting, the board agreed to forgo the Florida locale and move the meeting to landlocked Utah.

“I thought it would take at least a year to set this up,” Hill says, “but it took less than two weeks.”

In this era of “uncivil communication,” Colom says, “It’s time for two well-established groups to deal with each other civilly, to find areas of commonality.”

To that end, the LDS Church and the NAACP plan to work together in three areas: disaster relief, education and civic projects.

There is much to admire about Mormonism, Colom says. “We are not different people. We are one.”

In fact, “Be One” is the theme of the LDS Church’s June 1 celebration marking the end of the faith’s priesthood/temple prohibition on blacks.