08.02.11

Mormons Wrestle With a Racist Past

America's 'Mormon moment' has exposed an uncomfortable side of the church: its spotty record of accepting African-Americans, according to a new film. Lizzie Crocker talks to the people behind a bracing new documentary that tries to set the record straight.

Just before March Madness, fans of Brigham Young University’s nationally ranked basketball team were crushed when its star forward, Brandon Davies, was benched for having premarital sex with his girlfriend. Davies paid a big price for violating the school’s honor code, losing his shot at a dream season and ultimately withdrawing from BYU after finishing his winter finals.

As the BYU community questioned Davies’ dedication to his faith, the media declared the school’s honor code racist, pointing out that Davies is black and his girlfriend at the time was white. Deadspin dug up troubling statistics showing a majority of BYU’s honor-code violations involve black athletes. Several former BYU football players said that many of their white teammates often broke the honor code but weren’t punished. Either they were never caught or their offenses were purposely overlooked.

Racial issues have long been a source of controversy within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are at the core of a new documentary, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. The film treads on fraught territory, exploring the faith’s attitude toward African-Americans from its beginning in 1830 up to today, featuring interviews with Mormon scholars, civil-rights leaders, and clergy.

It’s an uncomfortable twist on America’s “Mormon moment,” a surge in mainstream representation that has seen two presidential candidates (Mitt Romney and his distant cousin Jon Huntsman), a Tony-sweeping Broadway play (The Book of Mormon), and more.

black mormon documentary
Black LDS Church leaders (fromleft): Darius Gray, counselor to Ruffin Bridgeforth in the Genesis Branch of the church and president from 1998–2003; Ruffin Bridgeforth (seated), president of the Genesis Branch from 1971–1997; Helvecio Martins, first black general authority of the church after the lifting of the priesthood restriction in 1978; and Don Harwell, counselor in the Genesis Branch (currently the president). (Courtesy of Documentary Channel)

Church founder Joseph Smith did not discriminate against blacks, and many African-Americans were ordained in the priesthood during his time as leader. According to the film, it wasn’t until after Smith’s death, when Brigham Young took over in 1847, that racist folklore became intertwined with Mormon dogma. Young preached about the myth of Cain, who was cursed by God and portrayed as “black” in the Book of Genesis and the Book of Abraham. Mormons adopted the belief that Cain’s dark-skinned descendants weren’t in God’s favor during their pre-mortal lives and were thus unworthy of holding the priesthood. For years, the Church of Latter-day Saints was labeled racist. The priesthood restriction denied African-Americans the most sacred privileges of the faith, including the ability to participate in ordinances and civil services. (Update: A representative from the church declined to comment on this article.)

Though widely accepted by church leaders as the word of God, Cain’s curse contradicted Mormon doctrine, which proclaimed that all children were born innocent. The paradox muddled the church’s principles: How could Mormons condemn blacks for their lineage, yet believe mortals would be punished for their own sins, rather than those of Adam?

Darius Gray, a black Mormon and renowned historian who co-produced Nobody Knows with author Margaret Young, was determined to restore the Mormon gospel so that African-Americans could be ordained. In 1965, Gray was one of two African-Americans among roughly 20,000 white students at BYU. “I was the darkest thing going down the street,” he exclaims in the film. He endured one year at BYU before leaving Utah, but would return several years later when he accepted a job at a flagship radio station owned by the LDS Church.

Black Mormon Documentary
Black Mormon Danor Gerald looks at a painted panorama of selected Mormons through the Church's history, including Samuel Chambers. (Courtesy of Documentary Channel)

“I was still a relative newbie in the church at this point,” recalled Gray in an interview with The Daily Beast, his quiet baritone voice eerily prophetic. “Frankly, I kind of feel like God conspired for my return.” Gray interacted with senior leaders of the church while working at the radio station and became a respected voice in the community. In 1971, he voiced his concerns about the revolving door of African-American Mormons to the president of the church, explaining that converts were renouncing their faith because they felt unwelcome in the community.

It didn’t help that many of them were accustomed to a hand-clapping, feet-stomping Baptist congregation. “If you go into any black Baptist church, you’re going to get a warm, fuzzy vocation,” says Paul Gill, a musician interviewed by Gray in the film. The Mormon church atmosphere was different, to say the least; one convert in the film compares his first service to a funeral.

After President Spencer Kimball announced in 1978 that the priesthood restriction would finally be lifted, African-Americans flocked to join the Mormon faith. They were disappointed to discover that though the ban had been revoked, a racial stigma still echoed in the church. Several black Mormons featured in the movie maintain they feel segregated today. “I don’t mind defending the church to black people,” says actress Tamu Smith. “I do mind defending my blackness to the church.”

“We are still struggling, just as this nation is still struggling with matters of race,” Gray explained to The Daily Beast. “They say that the gospel of Christ is for all people, yet its implementation relies on all people, and not everyone is there yet.”

“I don’t mind defending the Church to black people,” says actress Tamu Smith. “I do mind defending my blackness to the Church.”

Nobody Knows is as much a lesson in American history as it is a documentary about African-Americans in the LDS Church. “It’s not a church-proselytizing piece and it’s not a church-bashing piece,” said Gray. “But it does speak to history.”

Co-producer Margaret Young added that she would be more than happy to comp Romney and Huntsman copies of the film. “If a Latter-day Saint is running for the office of president, they'd best know American history to have any credibility at all, and they need to know the history of their own religion.”

Though both Young and Gray support President Obama, they are intrigued to see how Romney and Huntsman will address their religious beliefs as they move forward with their campaigns (Romney avoided discussing his faith while announcing his 2012 presidential run in New Hampshire.) Race is another issue that is bound to come up. When Romney was the GOP frontrunner in 2008’s presidential election, his campaign team clearly lacked diversity. “It was pointed out to him that there weren’t any people of color on his staff, and his response was basically that he didn’t need any,” Gray remarked to The Daily Beast, troubled that a presidential candidate would sweep the topic of diversity under the rug despite the fact that it is one of the defining characteristics of our nation.

Black Mormon Documentary
Samuel and Amanda Chambers. Sam was baptized into the LDS Church while still a slave in 1844. His first wife was sold off and he married Amanda Leggroan. They came to Utah in 1870, after they were freed by the Civil War. (Courtesy of Documentary Channel)

As for The Book of Mormon and other instances of Mormons in the mainstream, Young said she could appreciate the hit musical’s entertainment factor and was even amused by HBO’s polygamist show, Big Love. But she stressed that neither is an accurate portrayal of Mormonism today. “That’s one of the issues we’re dealing with right now. The stats are telling us that the most hated [religious] groups in America are Muslims and Mormons, and when people ask questions about Mormons, the two biggest issues are race and polygamy. We can only hope that our documentary will start a conversation about the race issue.”

Nobody Knows demonstrates just how far black Mormons have come since the priesthood ban was lifted 33 years ago. Though it’s not mentioned in the film, Africa is currently a prime breeding ground for new members of the church.

Meanwhile, Brandon Davies is reportedly working with BYU’s dean of students to meet conditions that will allow him back on the Cougars court next season. “There’s a plan in place,” Davies said in April, “and I intend to follow through and return to BYU in the fall.”

Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons premiered July 26 on The Documentary Channel. Watch its encore airing on Thursday, Aug. 18, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.