Racism is ‘endemic’ in U.S., Utah and LDS Church, panelists say

Some Black Latter-day Saints don’t feel safe in their own wards, says Genesis Group co-founder Darius Gray.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Darius Gray, left, Ross Peterson and Ronald Coleman lamented the rise of racism during a recent Mormon History Association panel discussion.

Logan • There is even more racism today in the United States — and in Utah — than during the era of segregated drinking fountains, lunch counters and hotel rooms, according to four giants in the state’s civil rights movement.

Some 44 years ago this week, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended its centurylong prohibition on Black members attending its temples or participating in its all-male priesthood.

And it has collaborated with the NAACP — a former critic of the church — on joint statements against discrimination and several other projects.

Yet, the past five or so years have seen a “resurgence of insensitive comments and attitudes the likes of which I have never experienced before,” Darius Gray said during a recent panel discussion at the 2022 Mormon History Association conference at Utah State University.

“Forget segregated swimming pools where [Black Americans] could only have access on one day a week,” said Gray, a co-founder of the Genesis Group for Black Latter-day Saints who joined the church before the priesthood/temple ban was lifted.

These days, he said, he has heard often from fellow Black Latter-day Saints across the country who have told him, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t feel safe in my home ward [congregation].”

Some members are “guided by their politics, rather than their religion,” he said. “Politics have been in the faces of certain people of color … and church is no longer a comfortable place [for them] to be.”

And, Gray pointed out, some contemporaries are even trying to turn back the clock on voting rights that have been in place for 50 years.

The other three panelists — each of whom was a pioneer in the effort for racial integration, equality and education — shared Gray’s pessimistic view of current conditions.

“I’m hurting now,” said Larry Gerlach, an emeritus history professor at the University of Utah and author of “Blazing Crosses in Zion: The Ku Klux Klan in Utah.” “Well, when you come to the end of your life and you see what has happened to your country and you’re struggling to be optimistic, I don’t know. Racism … is endemic again.”

Gerlach said some teachers might “misuse the past for contemporary purposes, but the claims and concerns about critical race theory are vastly exaggerated and teachers must be trusted to teach responsibly.”

Once eroded, trust “is difficult to restore,” he said. “The CRT controversy will pass. The greater concern is the attempt to control what is taught in public schools.”

Americans should never “allow ourselves and our children to forget the brutal and bloody racism that sustained this country,” Gerlach said. “That means not just talking about the overt racists who bought and sold people or lynched more than 3,000 Black men and women. But also how governments — local, state and national — as well as American society generally condoned and supported human bondage.”

Religion often was used, he said, to “rationalize and protect both slavery and post-slavery racial discrimination.”

The retired professor is a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and racist groups.

The U.S. is “covered” with these organizations, he said. “And I just keep asking myself: What the hell is wrong? I don’t know. But the bigger question for me is: What do you do about it?”

Grace Soelberg, a Black woman in the audience, grew up in Davis County, which has been investigated for racial harassment of students of color and where the majority of the population belongs to the Utah-based faith.

Soelberg asked the panelists what the LDS Church was doing or should do to combat racist behavior among its members.

“It was Mormon kids who bullied me the worst and the most,” Soelberg said. “I would sit in Sunday school with them, and then they would call me the N-word at school.”

Ross Peterson, an emeritus USU history professor who also taught African American history, echoed the others’ statements about growing “anger and prejudice.”

A Latter-day Saint, Peterson would like to see his church leaders “use the pulpit more than every six months [at General Conference]” to talk less about “Old Testament topics” and more about “what they strongly believe the people need to do.”

These Latter-day Saint leaders need to “be engaged themselves, out with the people and find out what’s going on and tell them the truth.”

It can’t be advice “in the abstract,” Peterson said, but more specifically aimed at members like in Davis or Cache counties.

If Latter-day Saints are “not following the teachings of the Savior,” Peterson said, the church has “a problem.”

Ronald Coleman, a native Californian who succeeded Gerlach at the U., had little or no knowledge of Mormonism or its history when he arrived at Utah’s flagship university.

But he had played on the school’s football team, had made many friends on campus and ended up writing his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on the LDS Church’s priesthood/temple ban.

Others had written about it, Coleman said during the panel discussion, but not from an African American perspective.

That ultimately led him to a career teaching African American history and ethnic studies at the U. and serving on every committee that needed a Black voice and presence.

“I thought I’d be here for about four or five years. I ended up having a career opportunity that only God can take credit for,” Coleman said. “I spent 42 years there.…This has been a good place for me.”

At the end of the discussion, Gray offered a kind of sermon.

“What is at the core of our being?” he asked. “Are we political creatures or are we children of God? Or are we brothers and sisters or members of the political line of thought?”

What would he change?

“I’d get us back,” Gray said, “to following the teachings of the Master.”