After a historic meeting, Mormon prophet Russell Nelson, NAACP president call for greater civility and an end to all prejudice

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson enters the room with NAACP leaders and other LDS Church leaders during an event on May 17, 2018, where the two groups discussed the need for greater civility and called for an end to prejudice.

In a dramatic gesture on the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mormon church President Russell M. Nelson strolled decisively into a news conference Thursday at the LDS Administration Building in downtown Salt Lake City arm in arm with top NAACP officers.

Creating a powerful image, Nelson and NAACP President Derrick Johnson called on the world to “demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony, and mutual respect” while eliminating “prejudice of all kinds.”

The mutual respect was palpable as the two sets of white and black leaders described plans for future joint efforts.

“In meetings this morning,” Nelson said, “we have begun to explore ways — such as education and humanitarian service — in which our respective members and others can serve and move forward together.”

Johnson said his historic civil rights organization looked forward to many collaborative activities.

“President Nelson, the statement you just made expresses the very core of our beliefs and mission at the NAACP,” he said. “We admire and share your optimism that all peoples can work together in harmony and should collaborate more on areas of common interest.”

Nelson, considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by millions of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the globe, reiterated the church’s “fundamental doctrine — and our heartfelt conviction — that all people are God’s precious children and are therefore our brothers and sisters.”

“All human beings — male and female — are created in the image of God,” he added. “Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.”

Johnson said the ties being established between the Utah-based faith and the NAACP should serve as a model for how groups can unite to achieve common goals.

“Like the Latter-day Saints, we believe all people, organizations and government representatives should come together to work to secure peace and happiness for all God’s children,” Johnson said. “We are clear that it is our job to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And we do so in an advocacy voice, but now with a partner who seeks to pursue harmony and civility within our community.”

Several invited black Mormons — including LDS icons Darius Gray, Don Harwell and Cathy Stokes — filled front rows as the statements were read and exulted at the unity between the groups. Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, also was on hand.

“This is unprecedented,” said Thom Reed, a black Mormon and an LDS Church employee. “It speaks to the openness of the new [governing] First Presidency and their willingness to engage with people all over the world.”

Then he added: “It’s the start of something big.”

Tracy Browning, another black Mormon and church employee, views the LDS-NAACP alliance as “an amazing opportunity for us to come together and see our commonalities, to be peaceful and respectful.”

NAACP officials described the meeting as cordial.

“It was like being on a first date,” said Leon W. Russell, chairman of the board. “We find out who you are, and you find out who we are.”

The most “concrete” idea that came from the summit, Russell said, was “the need to continue the dialogue.”

Zandra Vranes, co-author of “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons,” applauds the exchange but was hoping for more.

“I want us, as Latter-day Saints, to engage in what the church has called us to do, which is to have more civility and racial harmony in our communities,” said Vranes, one of the blogging “Sistas in Zion.” “But I also want us to do that within our own Mormon organization as well.”

It is hard to “call out the world,” she said, “when we have a [church] that doesn’t have racial harmony. The best way for us to be at the forefront of showing the world how to do it is to do it ourselves.”

The NAACP can tell LDS leaders what blacks face in general, such as police brutality, but they don’t know, Vranes said, “what we face in the ward.”

For many, Thursday’s watershed meeting and statements seem particularly potent, given the previous tension between the two organizations.

In the 1960s, the NAACP protested Mormonism’s racial ban, excluding men and boys from the faith’s all-male priesthood and women and girls from its temples.

Even after that prohibition ended in June 1978, prejudice and racist attitudes persist to this day among some Mormons, causing continued pain for Latter-day Saints of color — even as membership skyrockets in Africa.

Last year, in the wake of racial clashes in Virginia, the LDS Church issued increasingly strong statements — especially after an alt-right Mormon blogger voiced bigoted views — condemning “white supremacist attitudes” as “morally wrong and sinful.”

But the church’s racial history never came up in this week’s meeting, said the NAACP president.

“We both have an interest in disaster relief and alleviating poverty,” Johnson said. “We want to decrease bigotry and hatred. We want to look to the future.”

Wilbur Colom, an adviser to Johnson, said the group met Wednesday with Clark Gilbert, who shared with the NAACP members information about the church’s Pathway program, an online educational outreach service.

“They gave us everything they had and anything we wanted,” Colom said, who then quoted Gilbert as saying, “And we’ll work with you to take Mormonism out, and put Martin Luther King in.”

On Sunday morning, the remaining NAACP visitors will take their seats in the historic tabernacle on Temple Square for the weekly “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast, which will include, they say, the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”