How LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson nearly became George Wallace’s running mate in a segregationist’s dream ticket

Church President David O. McKay waffled but ultimately nixed the idea.

Editor’s noteThe following is adapted from “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism” (Liveright, 2024).

Just as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought to stitch together its increasingly diverse religious body, including a new correlation program that streamlined global publications and practices, the cultural tumult that surrounded America’s 1968 presidential election threatened to tear apart the nation’s social fabric.

The political fracturing that dissolved traditional allegiances across America left many, especially those outside party establishments, scrambling to form new unions.

Ezra Taft Benson, the Latter-day Saint apostle who had previously served in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cabinet but now seen as a political outsider who refused to mince words on socialism and civil rights, was in hot demand. In April 1966, a new John Birch Society–backed political organization, styling itself the “1976 Committee,” aimed to restore the nation to what members believed to be its libertarian principles during its bicentennial. They proposed running a third-party ticket with Strom Thurmond as president and Benson as vice president.

Benson, ever eager to jump back into the political fray, begged church President David O. McKay for approval. This was the only chance to “stem the drift toward socialism in this country,” Benson urged. McKay begrudgingly agreed. The Latter-day Saint prophet became worried, however, when, six months later, Benson was moved to the top of the ticket. By January 1967, there were even bumper stickers, and Benson claimed he received hundreds of letters urging him to run.

Once again, the more moderate members of the church hierarchy intervened, and, once again, McKay waffled. When Benson’s General Conference talk in October 1966 critiqued, albeit indirectly, other apostles who lacked zeal in the cause of liberty, N. Eldon Tanner and Hugh Brown, counselors in the faith’s governing First Presidency, felt he had crossed a line. They opposed Benson’s request to publish the talk as a stand-alone pamphlet. At first, McKay acquiesced and told Benson he could not go forward with publication; two weeks later, however, when cornered by Benson in a private meeting, McKay flipped. His counselors were livid, especially when they learned in December that McKay had approved Benson’s presidential run. When confronted, the church prophet denied his support; once again, he later reversed course, and even retroactively altered the meeting’s minutes to hide his indecisiveness.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) From left, N. Eldon Tanner, David O. McKay and Hugh B. Brown were in the church's governing First Presidency.

While the 1976 Committee quietly dissolved before the primary season, a more tempting opportunity came at the dawn of 1968. The year was one of the most turbulent in American political history, as aftershocks from a decade of civil rights battles realigned political parties. Democrats, due to their increasing support for racial equality, lost footing in what had previously been their Southern strongholds; Republicans, now fully committed to a Southern strategy, formed a new coalition based on racial grievance in the South and libertarianism in the West.

George Romney’s rise and fall

(Tribune file photo) In this 1966 photo, two of the top contenders for the Republican nomination for president in 1968, Richard Nixon, left, and George Romney, talk during meeting in Detroit.

Among the casualties of this shift was George Romney, a prominent Latter-day Saint businessman and pragmatic Michigan governor who previously had been considered the likely GOP nominee. However, due to both his moderate platform and infelicitous comments regarding “brainwashing” and Vietnam, he now fell from front-runner to afterthought. Both parties seemed unmoored.

Hoping to take advantage of this unsettled climate was George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who gained a national reputation for his public and stubborn opposition to racial equality. “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,” he famously proclaimed, “... segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” The energetic, charismatic and uncompromising firebrand, now exiled from the national Democratic establishment, eyed a third-party run. For a running mate, he desired someone who was nationally recognized and could therefore add validity, was a Republican and could offer bipartisan support, and was outside the South and could demonstrate geographic range. Someone who was a political outsider and also known for his bombastic rhetoric. Someone like Ezra Taft Benson.

On Feb. 12, at Wallace’s request, Benson, just finished with an apostolic assignment in Wisconsin, flew to Alabama for a clandestine rendezvous in the state mansion. Wallace flattered him for more than three hours, and Benson came away believing he had just spoken to the next American president. The apostle, finally seeing his chance to save the country, wanted to join the ticket. He knew that persuading McKay to give permission, however, would prove difficult, so he plotted his path carefully. Benson meticulously documented in a judiciously crafted letter why he should run, emphasizing it was the best chance to curb communism’s tide once and for all. He even favorably compared Wallace’s political party, the American Independent Party, to church founder Joseph Smith’s political ideals. Benson’s letter was accompanied by a personal appeal from Wallace. The cause was urgent, and the timing was intricate — the deadline for getting their names on ballots was quickly approaching.

The big meeting with McKay

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President David O. McKay, left, with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the Tabernacle in September 1963.

Benson tried to meet with McKay the day after he returned to Salt Lake City. The nonagenarian prophet had been so sick that he had not attended any leadership meetings for months. Visits were strictly managed by his counselors and secretary. Knowing he would not receive a warm reception from either Tanner or Brown, Benson instead sidestepped them entirely and approached Alvin Dyer, a fellow conservative who had recently been appointed an additional member of the First Presidency. The two strategized how best to approach the ailing church prophet and eventually secured a meeting at 3:30 that afternoon in his Hotel Utah apartment. Dyer went in first to introduce the topic and ease McKay to the idea, after which Benson joined them. Then, after a brief discussion, Benson and Dyer sat silent for 10 minutes as McKay, sickly and bound to his office chair, perused the letters and considered the situation. The pause was poignant. Benson’s entire political trajectory pointed to this exact moment.

For once, McKay was decisive. “You should turn the offer down,” he said with conviction. This time, he was not willing to be swayed. Benson, hiding his disappointment, said he was willing to abide by the decision. His most promising political opportunity had effectively come to an end. McKay, likely sensing the anguish, reaffirmed his high regard for the apostle.

They exchanged long handshakes and parted.

As Benson and Dyer walked back to the church’s office building, a block from McKay’s apartment, Benson could not help but retrace his steps and consider where things went wrong. Was Dyer to blame? “You did not make any recommendation, did you?” he asked, referring to Dyer’s preliminary chat with McKay. Dyer assured him he did not. Benson, still despondent and without someone to blame, tried to accept the new reality. His opportunity to save the nation had vanished.

(Photo by Mike Hoogterp) Benjamin Park teaches American history at Sam Houston State University and is the author of “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism.”

Benjamin E. Park teaches American history at Sam Houston State University. His new book is “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism.” He also is the author of “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.”

(Amazon) "American Zion: A New History of Mormonism" from scholar Benjamin Park.