Ezra Taft Benson clearly wasn’t a fan of civil rights and called it a communist conspiracy. But his counselor in the First Presidency, Gordon B. Hinckley, made peace with the NAACP and helped name a state holiday in Utah after King. Dr. Matt Harris tells more about Hinckley’s effects on Benson.
Matt: For years, Dr. King’s been called a commie. Latter-day Saints of at least two generations grew up with this sort of thinking. So, what do you do about this? Well, when the Martin Luther King holiday was proposed in the early ’80’s, of course, the State of Utah just recoiled in horror. They can’t support the Martin Luther King holiday. The idea was, not only is he a communist, but he’s an adulterer and all the other things that these people had said about him. So, what happened was Utah decided they were going to call it Human Rights Day instead of Martin Luther King Day. There are a few other states that had gone that path, too.
Matt: Hinckley is privately befriending members of the NAACP. He’s doing a lot of stuff behind the scenes to really undo, quite frankly, what Elder Benson had spent much of his apostolic ministry doing: denouncing civil rights and Martin Luther King. So, President Hinckley is doing much of this stuff on his own. To finish the story here, that President Hinckley gives his support to rename the holiday after Martin Luther King. He tells the church lobbyist, he says, “Why don’t you go up to the hill and let them know that the church supports the renaming of Martin Luther King Day?” He’d been working in private with NAACP leaders. They have been pushing him hard. “Why can’t the church support this? Because you know, if the church supports this, that the legislature will fall in line.”
President Hinckley thought, “Oh my goodness, why don’t we support this? It serves no purpose in the 21st century, or as the 21st century approaches to not rename this after this iconic civil rights leader.” So, President Hinckley tells the church lobbyist, “Go up to the hill and tell them that the church supports the changing of the holiday.” It was done. And so in 2000, Utah became, I think it was like the 49th or 50th state in the union to recognize Martin Luther King holiday. What that means is that President Hinckley, yet again, is trying to modernize the church and to let Latter-day Saints know that, it’s unchristian to demean people of color and to call them a commie, and to deny them civil rights. That’s really, I think, one of, in my humble opinion, one of President Hinckley’s most enduring legacies is to really open up a new day for race relations with the church. As far as I know, because of President Hinckley, the NAACP has maintained cordial relations with the church hierarchy, because of him.
He also makes some interesting comments about Sheri Dew’s biography of President Benson.
Matt: If you look at Elder Benson’s biography that Sheri Dew did, that was published in 1987–this was during the early years of his presidency, which is really interesting if you look at this. And this is not a fault to Sheri Dew–otherwise I think it’s actually a pretty fine biography. But there’s no mention of the Birch Society, Robert Welch, none of that stuff. These guys were extremely close. And to not mention that in a biography is really extraordinary. Again, not a criticism of Sister Dew, but clearly somebody had prevailed upon her that, you know, “We’re trying to move beyond this stuff. This isn’t good for business.”
GT: So, you think she purposely was told to leave that out?
Matt: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m just speculating of course, but she had access to his papers and she knows how close they are.
Check out our conversation, and don’t forget to purchase Matt’s new book on Benson called Thunder from the Right. My copy arrived on Tuesday and I’m just digging into it!
Here are our other conversations about President Benson!
253: The End of Benson’s Political Aspirations (Harris)
252: Benson on Civil Rights & Communism (Harris)
251: Benson and John Birch Society (Harris)
250: How Ezra Taft Benson Joined Eisenhower (Harris)