Gordon Monson: BYU and the LDS Church are attempting to leave racism behind, but they have forgotten one important thing

Two members of Wyoming’s “Black 14″ football players have spent time on the Provo campus this week.

There is hope at BYU, after all, even if some students of color still feel elements of racism at the school, and even though no apology has ever come forth from the school’s owner and operator, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for its racist positions of the past.

BYU honored the Black 14 — a group of Wyoming football players who wanted to protest the church’s policies in 1969 and were subsequently kicked off the Cowboys team — before and at the half of Saturday night’s home game against Wyoming.

Representing the 14 on campus this week were Mel Hamilton and John Griffin, who had spent recent days speaking to various groups at BYU before the ceremonies at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Those men, along with many others, had gotten acquainted with BYU in recent years, joining together with its sponsoring church in providing truckloads of food for a couple of handfuls of communities, metro areas in which the Black 14 had lived. BYU produced a documentary, which recently premiered, detailing the story of the players, how they had proposed to their Wyoming coach 53 years ago the idea of wearing armbands in their upcoming game against BYU to protest the LDS Church’s ban on Black males holding the priesthood and other privileges available to whites. He promptly booted them from the team.

Wyoming had since honored the men, attempting to right the wrongs of the past. And now, it was BYU’s turn, after working together with some of them in those helpful causes.

It — both the joint charitable work and the honoring of the players — is a step forward for BYU. That should be noted and appreciated. The church has donated tons and tons of food to help do good, shoulder to shoulder with some of the players.

There has been no apology, however, from the institution.

Hamilton and Griffin didn’t seem to want one when asked Saturday if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints needed to apologize for its former policies.

“Oh here we go,” Hamilton said. LDS Church “President [Russell M.] Nelson, I think, has done great things to heal the wound. He has told his flock there were will be no hatred toward our brother man. He, being the prophet of the LDS church, gives me encouragement that he meant it. I will leave it that way. Other way it gets political.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Griffin, left, and Mel Hamilton, both members of the “Black 14″ — a group of Wyoming football players who were kicked off their team in 1969 for planning to protest Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policies during a game against BYU — are being honored this week in Provo. Ahead of the No. 19 Cougars’ matchup with the Wyoming Cowboys, the two will light the Y on the mountain above LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday night, Sept. 2022.

“I don’t know,” Griffin said when asked if the church should apologize. “I think what the church is doing, their apology is what they are doing with [the Black 14] now. They don’t have to do that. They didn’t have to embrace us. But they embraced us because they compared our hearts to their hearts. And we are blended hearts.

“They felt it is time for us to work with them. It is time for us to embrace that. It is time for us to do some really good things for everybody.”

Griffin acknowledged the healing process is not over after the group was honored this week.

“I can’t say it is done,” he said. “I can say the healing will continue.”

There’s a whole lot of progress yet to make.

It’s one thing to give food, it’s another to change prejudiced attitudes among some who, influenced either by past policies or by their own racism, grow from wherever such ignorance and idiocy are planted and sprout.

BYU and its church are making attempts at progress in these areas. The school is establishing an office and providing resources to help minority students and to root out racism. The church has made connections with the NAACP, has offered volunteer services of various kinds, and has heard messages given by prominent church leaders to exorcise racism.

Such exorcisms take time, especially when past policies and attitudes fostered — and, most unfortunately, foster still — racist ideas among some church followers. If the faithful proclaim to be followers of Christ, how can they be racist, too? It’s one of the biggest collisions of love and hate, creating a cloud of hypocrisy that has yet to completely clear. It never made sense before, and it makes no sense now.

That’s why a strong apology from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be so helpful. If leaders and members of that faith believe so forthrightly in repentance, and they do, in making what was wrong right before God and having afflicters balm the afflicted, starting with an apology, why wouldn’t the institution itself apologize for a policy that was a mistake?

BYU and the church are attempting to do good. That’s good. Keep trying. Keep doing good. But it’s like putting a cap on a rotted tooth. The rot needs to be seen, recognized, cleaned out before the crown can do more than just temporarily look good, it can heal and function anew.

The Black 14 were honored on Saturday night. The honorees accepted the honor, grateful for the school’s and the church’s progress and contributions to helping and healing hungry people.

Griffin and Hamilton may not want an apology, but there are many others who have been aggrieved here.

It’s time for the church from the very top to heal itself and its school more fully by saying, in a definitive, unequivocal and official way, three words:

We are sorry.

— Tribune reporter Kevin Reynolds contributed to the reporting of this column.

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