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How Hinckley Prevailed Over Benson on Civil Rights (Part 12 of 13)

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!

 

Gordon B. Hinckley made outreach to the NAACP and helped undo the harm of President Benson's race relations.
Gordon B. Hinckley made outreach to the NAACP and helped undo the harm of President Benson’s race relations.

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)

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Benson on Civil Rights & Communism (Part 10 of 13)

Ezra Taft Benson was a sharp critic of the civil rights movement and called it a communist conspiracy.  Why was that?  Dr. Matt Harris details the red scare, and why Benson was so opposed to both communism and civil rights.

Matt:  Elder Benson thinks that Martin Luther King–this is the Birch view, of course, but Elder Benson, following the Birch line thinking that Dr King is a communist agent. That somehow if you push for racial equality, you also want economic equality and that makes you a socialist and a communist. So Elder Benson is furious with Hugh B. Brown’s general conference talk, where the Church is on record as supporting civil rights. Now keep in mind what that means. Brown never said that we favor the civil rights stuff going on in Congress right now. Nor do we favor particular legislation in the State of Utah. There was nothing specific about it. He would write that too, to other Latter-day Saints who wrote him letters. “Does that mean we support the Civil Rights Act of 1963, that John F Kennedy is pushing through?” He’d write back, “We don’t support any particular policy. I just want you to know that we do support civil rights as a general principle.” So clearly, there’s some hedging with him.

We will also talk about his European Mission.

Matt:  …after the whole Harding speech on the floor of the Congress, it created a buzz storm. And the brethren and President McKay [decide] “We’ve got to get Benson out of the country. We’ve got to purify his blood.” That’s what Joseph Fielding Smith says in a private letter. We’ve got to get him out of the country and purify his blood. What he meant by that is purify his blood of politics, of Birch. In 1963, ironically enough, the same month that Hugh B. Brown is giving that civil rights statement in conference, Elder Benson’s going to get summoned into the First Presidency’s office to be told that he’s going to be sent to Germany to preside over the European mission.

Check out our conversation….

Dr Matt Harris explains why Ezra Taft Benson tied the civil rights movement to communism.
Dr Matt Harris explains why Ezra Taft Benson tied the civil rights movement to communism.

Don’t forget our other conversations about Benson!

251: Benson and John Birch Society (Harris)

250: How Ezra Taft Benson Joined Eisenhower (Harris)

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Benson & the John Birch Society (Part 9 of 13)

If you were born after 1975, you may not have heard of the John Birch Society.  Dr. Matt Harris tells us more about this group, and President Benson’s allegiance to this anti-communist group.  Check out our conversation….

Matt:   He meets a man named Robert Welch who founds this very controversial anticommunist organization called the John Birch Society, named after a fallen GI in World War II, John Birch. Welch organizes the Birch Society in 1958. He writes an extremely controversial book that will get him pilloried in the national press. It’s called The Politician. He writes it in ’58, but it’s not published until ’63.

So it’s this big long manuscript that he shares privately with some friends and Benson will get a copy of this manuscript before it’s published in book form. In the manuscript, it says that Eisenhower and members of his cabinet are communists. He also said that Milton Eisenhower, the president’s brother and close advisor, is also commie. He spells out several people. He says that the CIA director, John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State–they’re all commies. He gives several reasons why. Eisenhower doesn’t curtail the New Deal policies. This is liberal new deal. Of course, a lot of conservatives at the time thought that liberalism equated to socialism and communism. Well, one of the things that President Eisenhower doesn’t do is drastically roll back the New Deal and that leaves him open for criticism among people like Robert Welch. There’s some other things. Welch criticizes some decisions that President Eisenhower had made, General Eisenhower had made during World War II and somehow that equates to communism. I mean, really, it’s far reaching here.

I guess what surprises me is how Benson turns on Eisenhower, after the two had been such good friends!

Henry D. Moyle is in the First Presidency when this letter is sent out. He’s a Democrat and Hugh B. Brown’s a Democrat, too, the other counselor at the time. You can imagine they’re just mortified over this. Here’s a moderate Republican now getting accused of being a commie–a five-star general who spent his entire adult life fighting communism and now his erstwhile cabinet secretary accuses him of being a commie.

Moyle calls him in. He calls him Taft. Moyle called Taft in and one participant, or one witness said, “He ripped Taft, ripped him.” One of the things he said was, “How could you be disloyal to President Eisenhower like this?” You can imagine that as he’s sending this around, his son, in the meantime joins the Birch Society and becomes a high ranking official in the Birch Society. He’s the National Communications Director, I think, is one of his titles. And he’s going around giving speeches to Birch audiences, both in Utah, Idaho, actually one here in Denver, Colorado. He calls President Eisenhower a commie, out in the open–the news media is there.

GT: Reed Benson?

Matt:  Reed Benson, yeah. Ezra is a little more circumspect. President–Elder Benson at that point knew that it probably wasn’t good karma to give speeches, you know, so his son would do that. But Elder Benson did get himself into trouble in 1963.

Check out our conversation, as well as our first conversation about how Benson joined the Eisenhower cabinet.

Ezra Taft Benson, and his son Reed, were big supporters of the John Birch Society
Ezra Taft Benson, and his son Reed, were big supporters of the John Birch Society