If you were a Mormon in Missouri in 1838, facing a state sanctioned extermination order, how would it feel if the retort you received was 'All Missouri Lives Matter'? —W. Paul Reeve
Editor's note: This op-ed contains graphic language and accounts of violence against early Latter-day Saints that some readers may find disturbing.
I have grown dismayed as I have watched racial violence continue in incident after incident. One response from the black community has been to organize the Black Lives Matter movement. The reply from some Americans is to assert that All Lives Matter. It is a stunning retort that wholly misses the point of the Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrates an inability for some Americans to attempt to stand in someone else’s shoes. Mormons in particular need look no further than the 1830s and their own troubled sojourn in Missouri to find ample reason to take a stand against racial injustice.
In the fall of 1838, my white Mormon ancestors, Phelinda and Levi Newton Myrick arrived at a small outpost in Missouri. On 30 October a group of Missouri state militiamen, people whose role it was to protect and to serve, rode into this tiny outpost. One white Mormon raised his hands and waved his hat to signal for peace and to ask for quarter. He was met with gunshots.
One eye witness later described what happened to Thomas McBride, an elderly Mormon settler: “after he had gave up his gun & Surrendered himself a prisoner he was shot down and after laying a little while he attempted to rise. He was hewn down with an old peace of a corn cutter blade. After a while he attempted to rise again and he then was hacked down and hacked into pieces.”
My ancestors, Levi and his nine year old son Charles, ran to the blacksmith shop for protection. It was a terrible place to hide. The Missouri militia poked their guns through the slats in the boards and fired at point blank range. Levi was killed in that manner. Meanwhile Charles and two other boys, ages ten and six, hid behind the bellows in the blacksmith shop. Upon discovery, members of the militia blew off the upper part of the ten-year-old boy’s head, mortally wounded Charles (he died four weeks later), and wounded the six year old boy in the hip. As justification for shooting one of the boys, one militia member reportedly exclaimed, “Nits will make lice, and if he had lived he would have become a Mormon.”
The phrase “nits make lice” was deployed in various circumstances in American history to justify the murder of Native American children, but how do you justify an extermination order against people who look like you? One way you do so is to suggest that they are not like you—that they are somehow different, even racially inferior to you.
Mormons at the time recognized this racialization and complained about it: One Mormon leader, Parley P. Pratt wrote that Mormons were treated as if they were “some savage tribe, or some colored race of foreigners.” Heber C. Kimball, another Mormon leader, acknowledged that the Saints were not “considered suitable to live among white folks.”
No one was brought to justice for the Missouri expulsion. Mormon leader Joseph Smith asked his followers to write redress petitions to the United States Congress asking for federal intervention and compensation for the loss of life and property which Mormons had endured in Missouri. Professor Clark V. Johnson from BYU collected more than 800 of these affidavits and the Religious Studies Center at BYU published them in 1992. As I read these redress petitions in today’s context, I hear Mormons from the 1830s and 40s declaring, in petition after petition, “Mormon lives matter.”
Let me share with you a small portion of my ancestor Philinda Myrick’s petition, after she lost her husband and nine year old son: “the mob came upon us in the after part of the day . . . and commenced firing on helpless men, women, and children and there was fifteen killed and was buried in one hole the next day and other wounded, some mortally and among whom was my husband Levi N. Myrick instantly killed and also a child of mine mortally wounded who died about four weeks after.”
Amanda Smith, another petition writer who also lost members of her family wrote, “I now leave it with this Honorable Government to Say what my damages may be; or what they would be willing to see their wives and Children slaughtered for, as I have seen my husband, son & others [slaughtered for]. . .” In short, she wrote, “all my whole damages are more than the State of Missouri is worth.”
If you were a Mormon in Missouri in 1838, facing a state sanctioned extermination order, how would it feel if the retort you received was “All Missouri Lives Matter”? Mormons who were unarmed and whose hands were in the air were shot down in Missouri. They wrote petitions, more than 800 strong, pleading for justice and arguing that Mormon Lives Matter. Their pleas remain unanswered.
Today black Americans may indeed feel there is an extermination order against them and their lives don’t matter to others. When a black person ends up dead for a minor traffic violation or because his car broke down on the way home from college, telling black Americans that “All Lives Matter” is an insult. Imagine trying to convince white Mormons Philinda Myrick and Amanda Smith in 1838 that all Missouri lives mattered when it was their husbands and sons who were shot down for being Mormon.
The Black Lives Matter movement simply means that Black Lives Matter too. Black Lives Also Matter in a time when the justice system seems to imply otherwise.
Today I mourn with those who mourn, not in spite of my white Mormon ancestry, but because of it.
W. Paul Reeve is professor and director of graduate studies in the history department at the University of Utah.