Russell M. Nelson is about to join an elite group of global leaders working for civil rights.
On April 13, the 98-year-old president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will receive the Gandhi-King-Mandela Peace Prize from Morehouse College, a historically Black school in Atlanta.
The honor is awarded “to a person who promotes peace and positive social transformation through nonviolent means,” the school said in its announcement. “The individuals use their global leadership to affirm peace, justice, diversity and pluralism.”
The board selected Nelson “for his global efforts in ‘abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice against any group of God’s children’ through nonviolent ways.”
It then quoted the Latter-day Saint leader’s June 2020 Facebook post, after the George Floyd killing by police.
“Let us be clear,” Nelson said in the post. “We are brothers and sisters, each of us the child of a loving Father in Heaven. His son, the Lord Jesus Christ, invites all to come unto him — ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female,’ (2 Nephi 26:33 in the Book of Mormon). It behooves each of us to do whatever we can in our spheres of influence to preserve the dignity and respect every son and daughter of God deserves.”
Nelson, who will not be there in person, will accept the award in a special broadcast, hosted by the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on the Morehouse campus.
Notable speakers and distinguished guests, including Latter-day Saint general authorities, will attend this event, according to the organizers. There will be music from the Morehouse and Spelman College glee clubs and a virtual performance by The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
A special announcement will be made at this ceremony on future events with the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At the ceremony, the school will unveil an oil portrait of the Latter-day Saint president to be hung alongside Abraham Lincoln in the chapel’s prestigious Hall of Honor, which is open to the public. The hall includes more than 150 paintings of international leaders in civil and human rights, with busts of Mahatma and Kasturbai Gandhi in its lobby.
To Latter-day Saints, the award likely seems fitting for their top leader, who has made weeding out racism one of the hallmarks of his first five years at the helm of the world religion of 16.8 million.
Nelson has used his most prominent platform — the faith’s biannual General Conferences — to condemn racist attitudes in society and in his church. He reached out to the NAACP and put the church’s money where his mouth was, dedicating millions to programs for Blacks in this country as well as helping set up a fund to send young Black Americans to Ghana to learn about the former slave trade.
“As the mantle of leadership settled up on his shoulders, President Nelson provided a steady, responsive hand, addressing racism directly, in a way no previous church leader had,” Darius Gray, one of the founders of Genesis, a support group for Black Latter-day Saints, said in January. “There has been no equivocation, no hesitation speaking to the scourge of racism as servants of Christ.”
Nelson’s prize also reflects yet another step in how far the faith has come since 1978, when it ended a nearly 130-year-long ban barring Black members from priesthood ordinations and temple ordinances.