Most Latter-day Saints probably believe race equality in their church to be an issue resolved more than 30 years ago, when men of all races became eligible to receive the church's priesthood. However, the consensus at two independent LDS conferences last week seemed to be otherwise.
A new film "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons" was the focus of a session at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) conference at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy and another at the 2008 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium at the Sheraton Hotel.
Also, two other sessions at Sunstone addressed blacks in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Is the Mormon Church Still Racist? Theological Implications of the Priesthood Ban" was the official title of the presentation by Roy Whitaker, doctoral student of philosophy and religion at Claremont Graduate University, at Sunstone on Saturday morning.
He said the fact that Genesis, a group sanctioned by the church supporting blacks, still exists demonstrates the church is dealing with racism today.
"To most white Mormons, the race problem was solved in 1978," he said, explaining that a change in practice does not necessarily institute a change in attitude or belief.
"There is little change in the color of church leadership," said Whitaker, who is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He stressed the rising generation must not forget past church history but not be crippled by it either. He said the repealing of the priesthood ban was not the "silver bullet."
Whitaker also said the LDS Church has a lot to offer, but "multiple things need to be done." He noted that many black members were faithful in the church while the priesthood ban was in place.
Margaret Blair Young responded to Whitaker's lecture.
On looks, "we are so white (in the church)," she said. "I long for the day when we are truly showing all complexions."
Young also doesn't buy what some espouse, that only Brigham Young wanted the ban on blacks holding the priesthood.
"If it had just been Brigham Young, it wouldn't have continued."
She stated some estimates have up to 1 million blacks as church members today. She also said the current church doctrine is that "we don't know why" blacks were ever banned from the priesthood in the church.
Worthy men of all races were able to receive the church's priesthood as of June 8, 1978.
The new film, "Nobody Knows," is a look at the story of African-Americans in the LDS Church.
Darius Gray and Young, driving forces behind the film, are also authors and historians about black Latter-day Saints.
They showed excerpts from their new movie to FAIR attendees Thursday morning and then showed the entire production at Sunstone on Thursday evening.
Gray described it as "a piece we're very proud of." The film has been shown in other places and "has been well-received in each location," Gray said.
He stressed it is not a proselyting vehicle, nor is it negative.
"We've let people tell their story."
Young said they'd hoped to have the production on DVD by now and available to the public. However, she said, special features are twice as long as the main production, and it's taking longer to complete. The editor is doing other projects also, so "before Christmas" is the latest prediction.
Discussions about blacks in the church followed both showings of the film.
At FAIR, when asked if we need to know exactly why there was ever a ban on blacks holding the priesthood, Young said, "I can't imagine why we want to make clear why there was a ban."
Gray simply said "no," that he has no reason to know the why.
The two stressed they provide historical perspective and interviews, but not answers on doctrines or church policies.
Gray also strongly suggested that church members study the scriptures in context the entire Pearl of Great Price in particular and not just key verses if they want answers to such questions.
The movie states that the LDS Church had only 300 or so blacks as members outside Utah in the 1960s and even fewer inside the state.
The production interviewed one black church member, Keith Hamilton, who said, "I believe I chose to come to earth as a black man. I chose my mission."
The film also mentions that Elijah Abel was ordained an elder by Joseph Smith and later made a seventy in 1841. Abel was told by Brigham Young he could not receive his temple endowment in 1852.
At the Sunstone screening of the film, there were about 200 people in attendance.
Mary Ellen Robertson, director of outreach and symposium for Sunstone, had previously seen the film and said, "I think this should be required viewing for Mormons everywhere."
• In yet another Saturday morning Sunstone session, "Two Presentations on African American Mormons," it was mentioned there is evidence that as many as seven men of African descent held the Mormon priesthood before 1847.
• More information on the Genesis group is available at ldsgenesisgroup.org.
• Sunstone has no official ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FAIR is also not directly affiliated with the LDS Church.The annual FAIR conference ended Friday, while the 2008 Sunstone Symposium finished up Saturday.
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