Recording artist Gladys Knight was working on her first solo single in 1978, a disco-dancing song whose title, "It's a Better Than Good Time," would come to describe the feeling of many Latter-day Saints on June 8 that year.
After more than a century of excluding black males from holding the faith's priesthood, church leaders announced publicly that day that then-church President Spencer W. Kimball had received a revelation extending the priesthood to "all worthy males."
While Knight was likely unaware of the change or even the LDS Church back then, Darius Gray was a young black member who will never forget where he was or how he felt. The legacy of that announcement would change the future not only for both Knight and Gray, but for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution.
In the decades since, Knight and thousands of other black members have joined the faith, with LDS temples now operating in South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, and another seven temples operating in Brazil, where a large black population has helped propel record church growth in South America.
As a longtime ambassador of sorts for the church, Gray has worked tirelessly to explain his faith and to dispel the continuing folklore about the "premortal valiancy" of black Latter-day Saints to those who still question the reason for the priesthood ban or who hang on to discredited LDS folklore about its origin.
So Sunday's 30th anniversary commemoration of the priesthood announcement the first sponsored officially by the LDS Church provides many who have watched or experienced the faith's growing pains among black members a chance to hear from two general authorities about a subject they have long wondered about (see accompanying box).
Church spokesman Mark Tuttle said the local Genesis group comprised mainly of black Latter-day Saints approached the church about about the celebration, and "after consideration, church leaders decided to hold a church-sponsored event."
The church's public affairs department officially announced the event to the media on Wednesday, but the thousands of tickets made available to gain entry were already gone before the media announcement was made.
Tuttle said the event was originally announced on the church's Web site, and tickets were distributed through Genesis and to local stakes beginning May 14. Overflow seating will be available on Temple Square, and Brigham Young University will broadcast the event as part of its regular devotional program schedule, he said.
For millions of church members who have come to the faith in the past 30 years or are simply too young to remember anything about the ban, the church's announcement that June day may not seem to be much more than a historical footnote.
In fact, many American churches restricted black participation before the civil rights movement changed U.S. norms on the issue of race.
But a poll conducted by the LDS Church News in 1998 asked a sample of 900 church members to choose the top LDS stories of the 20th century. About 49 percent responded to the poll, and "the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males" was ranked the top story of the century, higher than the proliferation of temples worldwide or the dynamic growth of the church.
Gray who many regard as the church's foremost liaison with LDS general authorities on black issues had been a leader in the church's Genesis organization for decades. He believes most Latter-day Saints in June 1978 remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news, "much like the 1969 moon landing or the Kennedy assassination. ... People even heard about it while they were in flight over the country. That was the importance of the news."
As a young paper supply company employee, he was working in his office when a female colleague ran in to share "a rumor going around the Church Office Building" after talking with an employee there.
Shocked but hopeful, Gray turned on a small radio and TV in his office, but nothing was being broadcast at that point. Next, he did "the only logical thing. I picked up the phone and called President Kimball," a man he knew personally because Gray had been asked to help ease tension with college athletic teams around the West that had threatened action against teams at church-owned Brigham Young University over the race issue.
Rather than President Kimball, Gray ended up on the line with his secretary, who confirmed the news. His reaction?
"Disbelief, first and foremost. Elation, secondly. And being challenged personally, third. I had become inactive at that point. I had not lost my testimony but I had stopped going to church. There were just too many painful experiences. I had to get myself back right to be able to personally benefit from what was now being made available to all worthy males."
As a convert in 1964, Gray immediately realized the announcement "not only affected the current day, but it meant everything for us looking at those who came before, who had died on were on the other side of veil. Finally, their temple work could be done," a prerequisite to exaltation with God in LDS belief.
Previously, when it came to family history and temple work, the church had "held aside any names it recognized as being African American, black or mulatto," he said.
At the time, and unbeknownst to most church members, groups of black Africans had organized their own version of the LDS Church after writing to church headquarters and asking for literature. Gray would learn much about African interest in church membership from LaMar Williams, who had been called by President David O. McKay to go to Africa and meet with those groups.
After visiting the continent and meeting with the "Saints," none of whom had been baptized in any official sense, Williams estimated there were between 300 and 400 of them, meeting in designated worship spots and continually seeking more information and support from Salt Lake City. At that point, in 1964, the church had approximately 2.5 million members.
Because the church does not record race as part of its membership records, there is no official count on the current number of black Latter-day Saints, but some have estimated it may be as high as 500,000, based on general population percentages and conversion rates in Africa and Brazil.
BYU sociologist Cardell Jacobsen, who has researched ethnicity within the LDS Church, told a group of students at Utah Valley State College this spring that in talking with his students, they believe Utahns "tend to be pretty naive about race" and the challenges black Latter-day Saints in particular still face.
"We don't know how to interact with African Americans and sometimes other groups," he said. "We still ask stupid questions that would not be asked in other areas," and there is evidence that prejudice persists in Utah and America at large.
In recent interviews with trans-racially adopted children and their parents about their experience with race, "without exception, any child over 5 or 6 years old has heard the 'n-word.'. Parents report they have heard lots of nasty and ugly things," he said. Even so, he is optimistic that at some future day, race will fade away as an issue.
Gray, who travels regularly to speak with LDS groups and share a recent documentary film he and co-producer Margaret Young made regarding black LDS history, said he also hopes for the day that race is no longer an issue. But he is still dismayed at the number of people who hang on to old LDS folklore that said blacks were "fence-sitters" in what Latter-day Saints believe was a pre-existent war in heaven between Satan and Christ, or "cursed because Ham saw his father, Noah, naked."
He cried tears of joy in April 2006, when President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed lingering racial hatred within the church during the priesthood session of general conference.
"I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?" President Hinckley said.
"Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such."
Even with the admonition, Gray believes "roughly half of the population of the church has somehow been negatively affected by the past policy and the misinformation that is still out there. And there are some who think those attitudes should still prevail, that God in his magnanimous way allowed blacks to hold priesthood but that does not change the fact that they were less valiant in the pre-existence.
"I think half would say that while others would say (the priesthood ban) never should have been."
He said there is no official LDS revelation "on record about it having been a doctrine. Both President Heber J. Grant and President David O. McKay called it a 'policy."'
During a recent documentary screening at Boise State University, the crowd was largely black descendants of early black pioneers who had migrated to Idaho, he said. After he and Young showed the film and answered some probing and negative questions from non-Latter-day Saints, they received an e-mail from "a sweet, well-meaning, white LDS lady that was not harsh or angry, but went on to express her belief that blacks were less valiant."
Further, she explained why she believed much the same about "Lamanites and Jews," who she believes are cursed by God "because of their ancestors."
"That's where the church is yet today," Gray said. "That contingent is still out there, even though the outgrowth of the revelation is that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is now, and has always been, for all people."While he's "thrilled" the church is hosting Sunday's commemoration, Gray said he longs for a time when church leaders and members can "facilitate the healing that is yet to take place, so that all vestiges of the non-Christian thought and non-Christian attitude that was too prevalent in too many hearts can be swept away and replaced with sheer joy of the brotherhood and sisterhood God intends us to have."
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