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.
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Over the years, BYU is known as being predominantly white, and overwhelmingly Mormon. How do black and non-LDS students fare at BYU? In our next conversation with Dr. Matt Harris, we’ll talk about how well BYU administrators have tried to attract both racial and religious minorities.
Matt: I know some black students who have gone there and they fit in really well and been happy and some have just been miserable. Some have said the racism was nothing to write home about, it was okay. Others, oh my gosh, I’ve never been around as racist an institution as BYU.
Racism, of course, is defined in different ways, right? It’s not just calling somebody a racial slur, which I don’t think happened. But it’s using shards of the old Mormon racial doctrine. For example, a black BYU student came home to her dorm room one day, and her white roommate looked at her just stared at her as she walked through the door, and the black girl said, “What are you staring at?”
The white girl responded, “I just wonder what you’ll look like in the resurrection when you’re white like me. I wonder if I’ll recognize you.”
I mean, those are micro-aggressions that are just intensely painful.
GT: It does seem like Muslim kids seem to fit in well at BYU. I know some Muslims that have worked at BYU. I know Mohammed Elewonibi made it in the NFL.
Matt: Yeah, I remember him.
GT: He was a big lineman for BYU.
Matt: Was he LDS?
GT: No, he was Muslim.
Matt: Muslim. Okay. Yeah.
GT: Islam, they don’t have the Word of Wisdom, but they don’t drink.
Matt: They have the health code.
GT: BYU can be actually very attractive to Islamic athletes.
What are your thoughts about racial and religious minorities at BYU? Check out our conversation….
An under-appreciated story in explaining the priesthood and temple ban was President Spencer W. Kimball’s announcement of a new temple in Brazil. In our next conversation with Dr. Matt Harris, we’ll talk about the significant role the Brazil Temple played in changing attitudes among the apostles.
Matt: Anyway, so when I met with Ed Kimball one long afternoon, we had dinner. When we talked and I said, “I want to share a thesis with you about your father that you didn’t write about in your book [Lengthen Your Stride.]” This thesis is this. He’s an academic. So he knows what a thesis is. I said, “Your father wanted to lift the priesthood ban the minute he became the Church President.”
And he looked at me, his eyes got really big. And he said, “You’re right.” He said, “I wasn’t at liberty to write that.” And I said, “Well, I am.”
And anyway, I shared some of my ideas with him, that the Brazil Temple was one of the ways that he would do that. I mean, think about how ironic it is to announce the building of a temple in a nation that’s like 85% biracial. Nobody can go to the temple. Right? How crazy is that? And President Kimball had been to Brazil in the 1950s. He had apostolic, administrative oversight over Brazil. I think President McKay wanted him in Brazil. So anyway, so he’d been to Brazil. He knew the challenges of the priesthood ban there. So he’s very familiar with the people in the country. And so they announced a Temple where no one can worship.
Matt: And anyway, so President Kimball is a masterful manager of people. In the university setting where I work in or if you study organizational behavior, this is a classic case of organizational behavior, how to deal with people, how to get them over to your position. And so, President Kimball brings him in over a period of several weeks some of the hardliners and consults with them and counsels with them. Kimball says, “We’ve got a problem in Brazil, Elder McConkie. You know that we have a new temple here. What do we do? Now this is the funny part. President Kimball knows what needs to be done. But he can’t do it without getting buy-in from the most vociferous member of the Twelve. And the most vociferous apostle opposing the ban, at least at that time. Right?
Matt: [McConkie wrote] “Mormon Doctrine” of course where he articulates his views about the ban an African-Americans. or persons of African descent. So he has to persuade Elder McConkie this is the right thing to do. Elder McConkie, will be persuaded if the saints are to utilize the Brazil Temple, they have to give black men the priesthood. That’s the short answer. If you read Elder McConkie’s son’s memoir, Joseph Fielding McConkie writes a book about his father in 2003. If you read the chapter on the revelation, Joseph Fielding McConkie gives the credit to his father. “It was my father’s idea to give blacks the priesthood.” At least that’s how I read it. “The Brazil Temple.” I’m thinking. I actually chuckled when I read that chapter. Because President Kimball knew darn well what he was doing. Elder McConkie didn’t know what was going on.