Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a black Mormon pioneer, was known to some Latter-day Saints historians in the latter part of the 20th century but was hardly a household name. Linda King Newell and Valerie Tippets Avery wrote the first well-researched article about Jane in LDS Church publication The Ensign. Subsequent Mormon authors focused on the early years of Jane’s life, particularly on founder Joseph Smith accepting her and her family into his home.
For scholars on race in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nothing in a recent official article on race and the priesthood was new. The forthright treatment of the subject, however, including repudiating myths that had been used to legitimate the ban on black men from the priesthood until 1978, was a matter of rejoicing for many longtime advocates of racial equality within Mormonism. The heroes of this story, however, are the black members of the LDS Church who refused to leave despite being afforded second-class status.
On Sunday I visited a church that's majority white but not overwhelmingly so. After worship, I stuck around for a planned conversation about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Here the demographics were flipped: a slight majority of African Americans.
But the white folks did their share of the talking.
When Barack Obama addressed the “Trayvon Martin ruling” Friday, he did more than offer his “thought and prayers” to the family of Martin, applaud them for their “incredible grace and dignity,” and narrate a history of racial surveillance that often leaves African Americans frustrated and even afraid. The president did more than acknowledge that the democratic judicial system had done its work, urge demonstrations to be peaceful, and call for close evaluations of “stand your ground” laws.
Obama took a moment where the nation was viciously debating its most cherished values through the death of a child and cast a vision for a better future through other children.
For most of my life now, I’ve been sucked ever deeper into various forms of Americana music. I love the simple forms and catchy tunes, the plainspoken emotion and humor, the fiddles and mandolins and banjos. In a worship context, I’m drawn as well to the music’s accessibility and its cross-generational appeal.
The musical The Book of Mormon portrays two naïve Mormon missionaries in Uganda proclaiming that “in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.” The joke isn’t mere whimsy; the LDS Church is widely perceived as racist. The irony is that had the church followed its initial trajectory, by now it likely would have become the most racially integrated and progressive church in America.