A year after he apologized for his remarks about “the Blacks” in the Latter-day Saint faith, prominent church leader Brad Wilcox has been chosen as the keynote speaker for Brigham Young University-Idaho’s graduation ceremony.
The Rexburg school, which is operated privately by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced last week its decision to have Wilcox speak at the April 6 event. Comment sections on the university’s social media pages were quickly filled with students and alumni who said they concerned by the choice — and some who said their posts expressing frustration or disappointment were getting deleted by the school.
“Clearly, the school doesn’t care,” said Marcel Robinson, a Black international student from Jamaica. “I just feel like it’s a spit in the face to have him come talk to students.”
Robinson said, for him, it feels too soon after Wilcox’s controversial remarks for the leader to be given such a prominent pulpit. And he believes the leader and the church haven’t done enough to address the racism he feels was evident in Wilcox’s words and continues to dog the faith.
A spokesperson for BYU-Idaho didn’t respond to a request for comment this week. A spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment. An attempt to reach Wilcox through Facebook was not returned.
Clips from a speech by Wilcox first went viral in February 2022 — during Black History Month — showing him speaking at a fireside for Latter-day Saint congregations in Alpine. In the video, the leader said he often gets questions from members who wonder why Black males didn’t get the priesthood until 1978, when the church’s racist prohibition was lifted.
He said they ask him if Brigham Young, an early leader in the faith, was “a jerk?” or if Latter-day Saints at the time were “prejudiced”?
Wilcox responded that they might be asking the wrong question. “Maybe instead of asking why the Blacks had to wait until 1978 to get the priesthood, we should be asking why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829.”
Some said — and Wilcox later acknowledged — it wasn’t the first time he had made those comments.
Wilcox, second counselor in the faith’s Young Men general presidency, issued an apology shortly after the videos began circulating. “I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
He went on to say, “The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended.”
After the comments, Wilcox continued in his position in the church and as a religion professor at the main BYU campus in Provo, where he remains a teacher. BYU put out a statement saying the school was “deeply concerned with the words,” while noting it appreciated the apology.
Some members of the faith, particularly members of color, felt Wilcox didn’t go far enough in rolling back his remarks and didn’t take responsibility because he attributed the lack of understanding to “God’s timing.” And some today, including Robinson, say there have been no efforts by the faith to address the root of the issue that they believe led to the remarks.
“Yes, he apologized, but when are we going to talk about how some church members are racist? How some professors on campus are racist?” Robinson asked. “I think many people on campus agreed with what he said. … Some people think racism ended when Black people got the priesthood, but it’s not like that.”
Students and alumni respond
Robinson said the first time he was called a racist slur was when he was on a proselytizing mission for the church — and it came from another missionary. He’s also been called slurs by fellow students while walking around the BYU-Idaho campus. And he said other students often assume he’s a custodial worker because of the color of his skin.
“We’re just not addressing the real problem behind this,” Robinson said. “I’m not saying he should or shouldn’t speak, but the situation was not dealt with. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be given the chance to learn and grow and be different. But this happened one year ago, and he just said it so nonchalantly.”
It feels like university and church leaders want to just forget what happened, he added, and not let anyone share concerns. His comment, he said, speaking out against the selection of Wilcox as the commencement speaker was deleted on Instagram.
Another Black student at the school similarly commented on Instagram: “Deleting some comments shows how little BYU-Idaho cares about the students who have been repeatedly hurt by Brother Wilcox’s words. Smh.” That was still visible on the post late Thursday afternoon.
One student added: “BYU-I is now rewarding him.” Another commenter said: “Nothing has changed about the way this school handles ‘leaders’ who are harmful.”
A few alumni jumped into the discussion, too. One said it was “disappointing to see” as someone who had graduated from the school.
Brian McDermott, who graduated in 2010 and also worked as a visiting assistant professor there from 2016 to 2018, said he’s troubled by the choice of Wilcox for commencement speaker. He noted, too, that the university deleted his original comment and blocked his profile.
“Students and alumni are not happy with the university’s choice to have such a man speak at their commencement,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune.
A few wrote that they supported the decision and looked forward to hearing Wilcox’s address. The majority of those came from white commenters.
BYU-Idaho has a larger population of students of color — at 25% — than the main campus in Provo — at 19%, according to data from each school. Robinson, who is set to graduate in two years, said he believes the difference is the influx of international students, like him, who choose to go to BYU-Idaho. The school there often touts the diverse population, too.
Its website says the school “strives to foster a healthy academic, cultural, and social environment.”
Robinson asked: “It’s diverse, but is it safe for those who are diverse?”
The choice for commencement speaker, he feels, shows that it’s not. The school additionally does not have an official Black Student Union — though a group meets unofficially off campus — because the school has banned “cultural associations.”
The church’s and BYU’s history with race
Nate Byrd, a graduate of BYU’s Provo campus and a leader of the Black Menaces group that has sought to address racism in the church and at the church’s schools, spoke out against Wilcox last year when the videos of his speech went viral and led a protest against the professor.
In response to Wilcox being invited to speak at BYU-Idaho’s graduation, Byrd said: “It is consistent with the pattern the church has always displayed when it comes to issues regarding race.”
In the church’s early days, under founder Joseph Smith, a few Black men were ordained to the priesthood. Later, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, put in place a prohibition preventing Black members from holding the faith’s all-male priesthood and Black men and women from entering its temples.
The Utah-based faith addressed the question of historic racism and the now-discarded ban in its landmark essay, “Race and the Priesthood.” That placed much of the blame for the priesthood policy on societal racism during the 19th century.
Questions around race in the church have persisted, though. In 2021, BYU released a 64-page report from a Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging at the Provo school. It exposed widespread and significant concerns about the mistreatment of minority students.
The document also noted that some religion classes continued to promote misinformation about Black exclusion from the priesthood.
“Many students reported that some of the most hurtful experiences they have had occurred in religion courses,” the report said, “where sensitive gospel topics such as the priesthood and temple ban and skin color in the Book of Mormon can be misunderstood or insensitively presented.”
Kimberly Teitter, a Black Latter-day Saint and Utah psychologist, said she was there with Black students at BYU, including Byrd, when they tried to talk to Wilcox after his remarks, to address their concerns and help him see their perspectives. Wilcox refused to meet with them, they have said.
“I saw how they were then villainized and made out to look more threatening or less faithful than they were, when it was Wilcox who made intentional efforts to turn them away,” Teitter said.
She said she’s concerned now with the decision to make Wilcox the commencement speaker, which feels possibly like an effort by the church “to defend him or bring him into good graces after his insensitivity in his talk was brought to light.”
Teitter doesn’t feel the same efforts have been made to encourage Wilcox to “complete the process of repentance” or repair the hurt he caused.
Another LDS leader set to speak at SUU
Wilcox’s speech isn’t the only one involving a church leader that’s causing controversy this graduation season.
Southern Utah University announced earlier this month that it would have Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland as its commencement speaker for the April 28 event.
Students and alumni have spoken out about that selection, with a petition garnering tens of thousands of signatures. That has stirred more concern as SUU is a public school, with students questioning the choice to have a church leader speak.
They have pointed to Holland’s August 2021 address at BYU in Provo where the leader advised listeners to take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its “doctrine of the family and … marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” He also criticized the commencement speech by BYU’s 2019 valedictorian, who called himself a “gay son of God.”
SUU announced Thursday that it would not change the speaker selection.
BYU-Idaho has made no move to switch from Wilcox either. The school will gradate 3,003 students, according to a news release about the ceremony.
The event, which starts at 5:45 p.m. on April 6, will be streamed live at www.byui.edu/live/video.