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Lee Benson, Lee Benson
The Rev. France A. Davis has been crusading for equality in Salt Lake City since 1972.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's Pioneer Day in Utah — a time to celebrate those who came to this place crusading for equality and basic human rights.

And you don't have to be dead to qualify.

So you can relax, France Davis.

Davis isn't a pioneer who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in a covered wagon, fleeing discrimination and persecution and people determined to make his life miserable.

For him it was worse.

He arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and ran smack into discrimination and persecution and people determined to make his life miserable.

The year was 1972, not 1847, when Davis crossed the plains from California and arrived in Salt Lake City to enroll in the master's program and teach journalism and news writing at the University of Utah. He was 26 years old.

In advance of his arrival, he had planned ahead and secured an apartment near the U. campus by wiring a deposit for the rent and the telephone he'd ordered.

But when the African-American newcomer and the Anglo-American landlord met face to face, suddenly there was a problem. The apartment was no longer available.

To this day, 39 years later, France Davis can't definitively say it was the color of his skin that was the issue — because the landlord never said as much in so many words.

Then he adds, "But I'd bet my life on it."

When U. of U. officials learned of the situation, they were appalled. They confronted the landlord with France and just as suddenly the apartment was again available, but by then France didn't want it. He moved into student housing on campus, where he stayed until the next year when his girlfriend, Willene, joined him from California, they were married, and he got his degree.

If the story were safe and predictable, it would end right there — the couple leaves with France's degree and are never heard from again.

But nothing about France Davis' story is safe and predictable.

He stayed put, continued to teach at the university and accepted a position as pastor of the predominantly black Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Salt Lake City.

Almost four decades later, he's still here — and this column isn't nearly long enough to list all that this one man has accomplished, and had to fight against, in the name of fairness and equality.

Name it, he's crusaded for it: fair housing, fair pay, an end to discrimination based on race, creed, age, gender and color; education opportunities for all, the eradication of poverty.

The nation got the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Utah got the Rev. France A. Davis.

Today he's being honored by the community's Days of '47 celebration as one of its "Pioneers of Progress" designees.

He says the honor is "embarrassing to me personally, but important for the causes I represent."

Never one to sugarcoat, the reverend is frank when he compares the Utah he confronted in 1972, barely a decade since he personally stood on the Washington Mall and heard Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and the Utah he sees today.

"My personal evaluation when I came here was that Utah was behind 10 or more years in terms of social awareness," he says.

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"People were still being denied opportunity in almost every arena based on their skin color."

And today?

"I believe we have made many significant changes and can now say Utah is no better or worse than anywhere else. It's open now, where before it was closed. But there is work to be done."

He confides that he is as surprised as anyone that he's still here at 65.

"You know, I came here for one year," he says.

Then he adds, "I believe it was God who intervened so his plans could be carried on."

Sounds like those other pioneers, doesn't it?

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com