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Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News
Leon W. Russell, chairman of NAACP national board of directors, speaks during the 109th NAACP Annual Convention at the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio on Sunday, July 15, 2018.

SAN ANTONIO — When local LDS leader Vai Sikahema met with New Jersey NAACP president Richard Smith last week, a member of Smith's staff stated the obvious.

"Boy, talk about strange bedfellows," the man said, sparking laughter on both sides.

Few would argue with that description of the new alliance between the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The NAACP's national chairman calls his organization America's "oldest, largest, most cussed, most discussed and most effective civil rights and social justice organization." For 126 years, the church denied priesthood ordination to black men, before the course was changed 40 years ago in an announced revelation, a history still resented by some NAACP members.

Despite their past differences, the church's First Presidency and the NAACP's triad of leaders began to carve out an unpredictable partnership a few months ago. Driven as much by personal relationships and one notable gesture of kindness as by need and mutual concerns over an era rife with animosity, they are moving quickly. A week ago, an LDS leader spoke at the national NAACP convention in San Antonio and announced a joint education and employment initiative.

While many applauded the news, others in the crowd of 8,000 raised vocal concern. NAACP leaders were well-prepared for that reaction, and during the 18 hours that followed they explained their rationale in convention speeches.

Meanwhile, Sikahema, a stake president in the church and former BYU and pro football great, and Smith went to work. They will meet again on Aug. 1, and other local leaders of both organizations now will be tasked with working out the details of what is envisioned by their national leaders.

NAACP motives

NAACP leaders arrived in San Antonio recognizing that they had a job to do to help their membership understand why they wanted to work with the Latter-day Saints. That was the reason they invited an LDS leader to speak during the convention. Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy, used his time to announce that the two organizations will provide joint training in the church's self-reliance courses on personal finance, entrepreneurship and seeking better jobs through education to their memberships in pilot programs this fall in New Jersey, Atlanta and Baltimore, home of the NAACP's national headquarters.

Elder Gerard told the Deseret News the invitation to speak was "a very significant sign of respect and a shared relationship."

NAACP Chairman Leon Russell said Elder Gerard's speech also carried additional weight.

"The most important thing in that announcement was indicating to our membership at large what we're doing and helping them understand the relationship we're developing," Russell said.

Soon after Elder Gerard spoke to both some cheers and some rumblings, the vice chair of the NAACP's national board of directors, Karen Boykin-Towns, went to the convention podium and addressed the elephant in the room. She herself was initially reluctant in February, when Russell chose Salt Lake City as the site of the NAACP's quarterly national board meeting.

"I was definitely one of those folks wondering, why are we going to Utah?" she said. "But in the days that followed that decision in February, I learned we were going to Utah because change cannot happen in a vacuum. We were going to Utah because inclusivity is important in this next-level fight. And I learned there was common ground to be had in partnering with the Mormons around social justice issues."

In May, she watched as LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and NAACP President Derrick Johnson kicked off the national board meetings by jointly calling for increased civility and an end to all prejudice at a press conference in the Church Administration Building next to Historic Temple Square.

"If you ask most board members in attendance, you will hear what an eye-opening experience that meeting was," Boykin-Towns said. "You could feel the importance of our visit wherever we went. For the approximately 500,000 black Mormons in their church, our visit and our meeting was surprising, impactful and groundbreaking. Despite our reservations, we left that meeting with a better understanding of each other's history and desire to acknowledge the past and to move forward for the common good."

She closed her remarks with a direct plea for her membership to support the surprising collaboration.

"Y'all, that's our chairman," she said. "He has a vision to grow our reach, chart new ground and build our partnerships even with non-traditional organizations, because if there is a common goal around fighting for human and civil rights, that's a ground we work on."

After the meeting, another NAACP leader said that message was crucial to the future of the LDS-NAACP partnership.

"The most important thing about tonight is what the vice chair said," Wil Colom, special counsel to Johnson, told the Deseret News. "That was a deliberate, planned message to our branches that we respect the LDS. We're both changing the course of our history. Both of us have big ships; it takes a lot to turn them. To say something like that to our constituency is a major deal.

"We're saying, notwithstanding anything that's happened in the past with the LDS Church, this is the relationship we're going to have. That's a major statement for us."

"Chaos or community"

The NAACP is openly troubled by increased racism since the start of President Donald Trump's election campaign, Russell said. The theme of the convention was "Defeat Hate: Vote." He said xenophobia — the fear of others — has surged over the past two years, making him reconsider Martin Luther King's question, "Where do we go from here, chaos or community?"

"Well, tonight," he told the convention on that Sunday, "the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People answers unequivocally. We choose community. We choose to reach out rather than withdraw. We choose to welcome, not turn folks away."

The NAACP needed to revisit its toolkit to defeat hate while working closely with its partners, he said. The next morning, Johnson told the convention the NAACP needed to re-imagine its opportunities, including those around education.

Those statements by Russell and Johnson, though also broader in scope, tied directly to Elder Gerard's announcement and Boykin-Towns' comments about the LDS partnership.

"The very reason why we were open to meeting with the LDS Church is because we are re-imagining and evaluating the levels of relationships we have within and outside of the African-American community," Johnson confirmed in an interview with the Deseret News. "In this current political climate, it's very evident that as Latino families and Muslim families are under attack, that soon can be African-American families or individuals of different religious belief, and that includes perceived or real differences of religious belief."

Humble beginnings

Several simple developments opened the door for the partnership. Johnson's mentor, Colom, developed a personal relationship with LDS attorney Steve Hill. Johnson joined Colom and Hill on a humanitarian trip to Tanzania in 2010, and later visited Salt Lake City with his wife. When Johnson became NAACP president last year, he made Colom his special counsel.

"When I became president, we started talking with the church," Johnson said. "Why not? Both parties were open to the possibilities of what a collaboration could look like, or at the very minimum to maintain an open dialogue. For us, any time you build a relationship it's identifying points of mutual interest and from there exploring ways that interest can really birth something creative. I'm excited about the possibilities of what that will look like over time. Let's try and see."

Also last year, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited the NAACP's Mississippi state office, Johnson's home base and the famous home of martyred NAACP leader Medgar Evers. He found the office in disrepair. When he returned to church headquarters, he secured funds to renovate the office. Local LDS missionaries and Young Single Adults tore up and replaced the carpet, repainted the walls and made other repairs.

The Mississippi state NAACP convention gave the Jackson LDS Stake a commendation for the unbidden gesture.

"I'm delighted something good is coming out of the efforts of those missionaries and Young Single Adults and Jackson stake president and area authority," Elder Holland said. "Such an innocent visit has led to Salt Lake City and then to San Antonio and now on to who knows what. Simply because some kids went in and did some nice things to repair an office out of free-will Christian association."

Natural ally

LDS leadership has made clear statements of support for the black community in both America and abroad, even as its black membership has swelled.

In 2013, in a landmark essay on its history, the church officially disavowed past theories some had held that blacks are inferior to anyone else. It was never a church policy. In 2017, church leaders officially stated that "white supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them."

Last month, the First Presidency-sponsored celebration of the 40th anniversary of the revelation that extended priesthood and temple blessings to blacks in 1978. The faith's entire senior leadership endorsed the event by its attendance.

Speaking during the celebration, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of the church, spoke about the suffering caused by the previous priesthood restriction.

"I observed the pain and frustration experienced by those who suffered these restrictions and those who criticized them and sought for reasons," he said. "I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them."

He said the revelation that ended the restrictions summoned church members to action.

"As we look to the future, one of the most important effects of the revelation on the priesthood is its divine call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children," he said. "Racism is probably the most familiar source of prejudice today, and we are all called to repent of that."

At the NAACP convention, Elder Gerard quoted, to amens from the audience, part of President Nelson's statement during the 40th-anniversary celebration.

"Ultimately, we realize that only the comprehension of the true Fatherhood of God can bring full appreciation of the true brotherhood of men and the true sisterhood of women," he said. "That understanding inspires us with passionate desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation."

Meanwhile, senior church leaders have expressed concern about intrusions on religious freedom and reduced civility.

In that context, Johnson, a Baptist, is a natural ally. He has been a champion for civility in ways that resonate with LDS leaders who have called for civility and fairness for all. Evidence of that common ground was heard in another speech at the NAACP convention.

"Derrick challenged us to use civility as a tool against bigotry and racism," said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Russell and Johnson and others made strong, anti-Trump political statements at the convention that might make some Trump supporters uncomfortable both inside and outside the church, but Johnson said that should not deter the relationship between the church and the NAACP's 2,200 units around the country.

"We have members who (voted for Trump)," Johnson said. "We are non-partisan. I've learned over time that we have members with political views that are vastly different than mine, but the commonality for the members of the NAACP is we love our community. As a result of that, we have to respect all kinds of views at the same time. We're not a monolith. If we ever become one, that will weaken us. We need to be as diverse and dynamic as possible, because that's the reality of our (organization). Whether individuals live in different parts of the country or worship differently, at the end of the day, we're not a monolith. We live in our community."

Moving forward

Since May, Colom has been working with LDS contacts at church headquarters.

"Wil has been our ambassador to communicate with the church," Johnson said, "discovering and navigating what a relationship could evolve to be and if nothing else, an ongoing, open line of communications."

In New Jersey, Sikahema and Smith, who was in Salt Lake City for May's joint press conference, are the vanguard for how the new initiative will happen at the local level.

"The next step," Johnson said, "is identifying some locations where we can mutually agree, here's a good place we can pilot and build out and from there put some intentionality around bringing the local leadership of both entities together to talk about what the possibilities would be if we had a collaborative effort. You know, our members on the ground are volunteers. Of course, members of the LDS Church are volunteers. People are seeking to do good with the time they have. Disposable time is a premium."

Sikahema, and Smith appear energized. Smith's staff posted a brief release on the New Jersey NAACP's Facebook page about their first visit.

"This is a chance to extend beyond the people who worship with us," said Sikahema, president of the Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake, a group of 13 LDS congregations.

Cherry Hill has been rolling out the church's self-reliance courses over the past year. Sikahema said he and Smith already foresee additional synergy. They've identified Camden, where Smith told Sikahema that inner-city issues of drug addiction and employment are blights, as ground zero.

Sikahema said that based on Smith's information, he would place one of the church's addiction recovery programs in the new LDS meetinghouse in Camden. He also said he will seek to make it a family history center.

"Who would have thought the NAACP would partner with us?" said Sikahema, a local news anchor in Philadelphia, which followed his football career. "They're just as enthused about the partnership as we are."

Like Sikahema, the organizations' leaders see broader opportunities. President Nelson identified humanitarian work as one during May's press conference.

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"The next step is, how do we collaborate around disaster relief, which is a crucial part of some of our work, particularly for our units along the coastal areas," Johnson said in an interview at the convention. "Being from Mississippi, I've seen the impact of Hurricane Katrina; last year we saw the impact of the flooding in Houston. Those are important collaborative opportunities."

Elder Holland said he looked forward to what else the church might do with the NAACP, which he called a legendary organization in the black community.

"I hope this will be just the beginning of an important new alliance between friends," he said, adding, "I think something great can proceed out of this new relationship."