On Sunday night, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson quoted uniquely Mormon text in his speech at the NAACP’s 110th annual convention in Detroit, saying “all are alike unto God.”
Following speaker after speaker rallying attendees to battle the nation’s ills (“When we fight, we win”), the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints repeated that scriptural phrase to make sure the NAACP audience filling the arena — where Martin Luther King Jr. gave the first rendition of his moving “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 — heard its message.
“We truly believe that we are brothers and sisters — all part of the same divine family,” Nelson continued. “We strive to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation.”
For more than a year, representatives of the Utah-based faith and the historic black civil rights organization have been meeting together, forging an alliance of projects and plans to improve the well-being of many African American communities.
The partnership has been “marked by a feeling of mutual respect, and a desire to link arms to see if we could capitalize on our respective strengths and help more people by working together,” Nelson said at the convention. “We don’t have to be alike or look alike to have love for each other. We don’t even have to agree with each other to love each other. If we have any hope of reclaiming the goodwill and sense of humanity for which we yearn, it must begin with each of us, one person at a time.”
As an example, Nelson pointed to the Rev. France Davis, who has been pastor at Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church for 45 years and has contributed much to the community’s essence.
“Active in the civil rights movement, [Davis] participated in the march on Washington, D.C., in 1963, and the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965,” the Latter-day Saint leader explained. “His quiet dignity and tireless advocacy for unity have greatly enriched the fabric of our community.”
Some years ago, though, Davis told then-LDS apostle Nelson that a performance by the famed Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square was “very good” but “lacking in spirit.”
Nelson went on: “While our taste in music might differ, I must say that he and his church have enhanced our city in a tangible way.”
In the Bible, Jesus says the “first great commandment — to love our God — is inexorably yoked to the second great commandment, to love our neighbor,” Nelson emphasized. “Together, we can extend this love to all God’s children — our fellow brothers and sisters.”
He concluded by saying he prayed that his church and the NAACP would “increasingly call each other dear friends.”
That same sentiment was evident during the Rev. Amos Brown’s introduction of the nearly 95-year-old Nelson.
Brown, chairman of the NAACP’s interreligious relations committee, called Nelson “a brother from another mother, another faith tradition and another race” who would “lock arms ... against racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia that divide the human family.”
Brown described persecution early Mormons faced at the hands of other Americans.
“His heritage mirrors a people who were persecuted because of their faith tradition,” Brown said. “We are oppressed because of ethnic visibility and the blackness of our skin.”
Then the NAACP leader alluded to the church’s former ban on black boys and men in its all-male priesthood and women and girls barred from temple rituals, which was removed in 1978.
Nelson did not apologize for the church’s previous racial policy, but Brown seemed to suggest the faith already had.
The Latter-day Saints “had the courage to say, ‘We have unfortunately been complicit in the evil of racism in this nation,’” Brown said. “‘But unlike some persons in this country, we are humble enough to say we are sorry, we are going to change our ways, we are going to do a new thing, sing a new song, talk a new talk, walk a new walk.’”
For his part, Nelson did not mention the now-removed ban, but he spoke glowingly of the growing fellowship with the NAACP, which was clearly spelled out in an opinion column in Sunday’s Detroit News.
In recent years, the NAACP and the LDS Church “have found significant common cause,” wrote co-authors Karen Boykin-Towns, NAACP vice chairwoman, and Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the general presidency of the women’s LDS Relief Society. “And the partnership has become something of a parable in what coaction can accomplish in an era too often marked by division.”
It began “a modest, but symbolically important, project to restore the historic NAACP field office in Mississippi once occupied by civil rights martyr Medgar Evers,” the pair wrote.
Since then, the two have cooperated “to pilot free, in-person, multiweek workshops on personal finance,” the piece said. The LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University law school is working with the black group “on a community initiative that leverages the school’s large alumni lawyer network to assist people — pro bono — with minor legal issues before the courts.”
By inviting Nelson to address the convention “in the same city and space where King once marched,” the women wrote, “the NAACP is demonstrating once again that it stands on the side of collaboration and cooperation, [echoing] in some small way, King’s call in Cobo Hall to transform ‘the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.’”