In the early 1970s, BYU opened up a brand-new law school. I was surprised to learn that the American Bar Association considered not accrediting the university due to the racial ban in the Church. Dr. Matt Harris describes some of these little-known issues that new BYU president and lawyer Dallin Oaks dealt with this potentially fatal blow to the law school.
Matt: There is new law school popping up and the American Bar Association, they send a letter to Dallin H. Oaks, this brand-new president. He’s a young man. He’s just left his tenured position at the University of Chicago where he went to school and then subsequently joined their law faculty. BYU recruited him to replace Wilkinson. So in 1971, Dallin Oaks comes on board and Oaks receives this letter. “Oh my gosh, they’re not going to accredit us. They’re threatening to not accredit us because of the church’s policy towards blacks.”
GT: On the law school.
Matt: On the law school. They just got it up and running.
GT: So let me make sure. So, 68-69 we’re having these civil rights problems with the entire school in general.
GT: We hire some black faculty. So that gets them off their back.
GT: But now 1971 comes and the bar association is threatening to take away the accreditation.
Matt: Yes, and a year earlier, Nixon, the IRS with Bob Jones is out. This is all going on at the same time.
Check out our conversation….
Don’t miss our other conversations with Dr. Harris.
Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal government tried to put pressure on the LDS Church to quit discriminating against blacks with regards to the ban on priesthood. A Civil Rights investigation was opened to see if BYU was in compliance with the Civil Rights Act. Dr. Matt Harris describes the results of that investigation.
Matt: The timeline is important. So April of 1968 is when they mail the civil rights letter, the letter to [BYU] President Wilkinson. This is the Office of Civil Rights in Denver, Colorado. They’re an arm of the Justice Department. Just a little context here, the Lyndon Johnson administration, in the 60s, decides that they’re going to go after private high schools and universities that discriminate against African Americans. So that’s a priority for the Justice Department in the Lyndon Johnson administration.
[Wilkinson] knows that if it ever went to court that if BYU were to sue the federal government for violation of their religious rights, they would lose. He knows this because it’s going on during that time. Some Christian universities are suing and losing. So there’s case law that’s been built up in favor of the Justice department.
So he knows what’s going on, and he knows if he goes to court, he’s going to lose. But he has the board, and the board of trustees is comprised of the apostles, most of them are apostles. These guys are, most of them are conservative, and they don’t like being told what to do.
Oh, my goodness! So, the federal government telling them how to run their school, that is just way too much for them. Harold Lee is another one. “How dare they tell us what faculty to hire?” He says that.”We’ll shut this place down if we ever have a negro student,” he says. I mean, they’re defiant. They’re belligerent, and so poor Wilkinson is caught right in the middle of the Civil Rights investigation and this recalcitrant board that doesn’t want to be told what to do.
In the late 1960s & early 1970s, there were many protests by colleges over the racial ban on priesthood in the LDS Church. Some schools, such as Stanford, refused to play BYU in athletic competitions over the issue. In our next conversation with Dr. Matt Harris, we’ll find out that these protests were much more widespread than I knew! We’ll also find out how Church leaders reacted to these protests.
Matt: The first protest at UTEP, the track team against BYU and then the said Civil Rights site visit that’s going to come in May of 68, a month later. So Wilkinson is just like freaking out. He’s absolutely panicking. I should say that they’ve already started talk to build this beautiful new basketball arena that will eventually be called the Marriott Center. So, now they’re worried about this. They’re getting pushback from the Western Athletic Conference that they’re going to get kicked out of the conference, because they don’t recruit black kids. Wilkinson’s response was, “Look at our manuals. We welcome all minorities. They just didn’t want to come here because it’s their choice.”
Matt: I can tell you categorically that there were well over 100 protests from different universities.
GT: Wow. I didn’t know it was that big.
Matt: Yeah, me neither. We think of the big ones, football and basketball. They were protesting BYU band events, wrestling, you name it.
Matt: The reason why I know this is because I’ve seen some documents in Wilkinson’s papers and he drafts this lengthy memo cataloging all of the protests.
Matt: Yeah, dozens and dozens and dozens. I was blown away. Some schools I never even heard of before. They just didn’t get the protest, or the publicity. So anyway, the ones that were the most salient, one would be the UTEP one because it’s the first one. It sort of kick starts everything. I’d say the second one would be in October of 1969 with the Wyoming 14.
Matt: Here’s the biggest point, I think, in this story is the Wyoming 14 we’re not just protesting the few blacks at BYU or racial discrimination at BYU, they made it abundantly clear they were protesting the Mormon Church’s views on race. This is much different than UTEP and San Jose and some others that were just really focused mostly on BYU and racism there. The Wyoming people are focusing more than just BYU, but the Mormon Church’s policies. So I think that’s a fundamental point. Of all the protests going on, Wyoming, they were very laser focused on the church, not BYU. Ernest Wilkinson is probably the best person to quote on this. He said, “They’re the ones that gave us the most fits because of that.”
The other one, so this is October of 69. The Western Athletic Conference is scheduled to vote in November and the word on the street that they’re going to kick BYU out. Even the University of Utah has sent Wilkinson–the president of the U is a Latter-day Saint. So he’s an orthodox member of the church and he tells Wilkinson, “Yeah, the U is going to vote to kick you guys out.”
 UTEP stands for University of Texas at El Paso. Previously the school was known as Texas Western, and was the first school to start 5 black basketball players. They won the NCAA basketball championship in 1966 by beating heavily favored Kentucky, a team of all-white players.
Check out our conversation…
Don’t miss our other conversations with Dr. Harris.