Alberta Henry, president of the Utah branch of the NAACP, has told an audience of college students that Utah was a slave territory and that racial discrimination still lingers among many Utahns.
Henry sparked a controversy when she refused to speak at Salt Lake Community College on Human Rights Day, which celebrates the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy of civil rights activism.On Thursday, Henry told an audience of SLCC faculty members and students that she had based her refusal to speak on the college's refusal to cancel classes for the Jan. 16 holiday.
"I'm sorry to say, I cannot buy into or agree with any state institution or school system that uses the excuse that they have heavy class schedules," she said.
Henry said the flap made her feel as though she were part of a soap opera.
"Salt Lake Community College vs. civil rights - will Salt Lake Community College observe the King Human Rights Day or will they blame it on the Legislature?" she said. "Wait until next week or next year. Tune in, and we'll have the answer."
School officials have said that under state law they would have had to sacrifice another holiday in order to observe Human Rights Day, but that the school planned to alternate observance of Presidents Day and Human Rights Day each year.
Henry's spirited speech was part of the college's celebration of Black History Week, and she said she accepted the engagement to educate the students about Utah's history and its current state of affairs.
"Because Utah was a slave territory, they need to observe Human Rights Day more than any other state," she said.
Henry, a former school district administrator, also criticized Utah's educational system for concealing the fact that the Utah territory approved slavery and that there were slave-holders in the area.
She said earlier editions of a state-approved history text titled "The Heritage" had only 97 words referring to blacks and used the word "Negro" in reference to them.
"Negroes in 1984? How ancient can you get," Henry said. "They mentioned nothing about there being slaves in Utah."
She said as a result of her efforts, the book was revised to include a section about blacks in Utah - albeit in the back of the book.
Henry said that as recently as 1964, "I came face to face with all the Jim Crow laws and the all black codes of the South here in Utah."
She said she was not allowed in hotel restaurants or public swimming pools, and most movie theaters had a separate section for blacks.
"They had de facto discrimination. We had to live in certain areas" and blacks were not allowed to marry whites until 1963.
Henry said the LDS Church and the early pioneers were responsible for much of the racial discrimination through the years.
"Brigham Young once said that the church believes that slavery was a divine institution and would not be abolished until the curse that had been placed on blacks was lifted," she said, adding that it was not until 1978 that blacks were allowed full membership in the faith.
Henry said she believes racial discrimination still is a reality in Utah, but she sees change because "the older generation is dying out" and the younger generation is more educated and tolerant.
On another topic, Henry blamed the Reagan administration for the decline of civil rights in the United States, saying his policies were aimed at undoing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
She said she and other NAACP members are waiting for President Bush's policies to emerge.