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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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The End of Benson’s Political Aspirations (Part 11 of 13)

Ezra Taft Benson wanted to run for U.S. President. Dr. Matt Harris describes a few attempts by Benson to run for POTUS, and how Church leaders finally put an end to Benson’s political aspirations.

Matt: The Birchers will create this secret organization called the Committee of 1776. It’s run by Birchers. It’s got Birch footprints all over it, but “we can’t reveal ourselves as Birchers because it’s too controversial.” And they say this in their board meeting. “If we say it’s us, then people will be turned off by it. So do not mention that Robert Welch or anybody is behind this. But it’s really mostly Birchers doing this.

So they draft Benson as their presidential candidate and they draft a man named Strom Thurmond, who was a Dixiecrat in the 1940’s, and split off from the Democratic Party because he was so pro-segregation and didn’t like the civil rights tack that President Harry Truman was taking.

And, without going into the details, the ticket fizzles. It doesn’t raise enough money. Thurman never had the buy-in, to be honest, that Benson had. Benson was alarmed by it and just giddy about it. President McKay gives the green light for him to do this, by the way, which is interesting, over the protest, of Hugh Brown and some other leaders.

Elder Benson and his son Reed fly out to Birmingham and they have a three hour meeting with George Wallace and Benson tells Robert Welch, “He’s a great guy. We have a lot in common.” So, Benson tells Governor Wallace, “I need to get the support of President McKay. I can’t do this unilaterally.” President McKay knew that there was some pushback when he gave the green light to run with Strom Thurmond. Some of the Apostles told him, including Hugh Brown, “This is stupid. Don’t do this.”

McKay is an old Scottish man. He had a little temper. “Don’t tell me what to do.” The brethren were sensitive to that, including Hugh B. Brown. So he goes back to Salt Lake and tells President McKay in a highly confidential meeting, “They want me to be the presidential candidate with Wallace.” This is on the Independent ticket because there’s a Republican Mormon who might wrap up the Republican nomination. So we’ve got two high profile Mormons running for the same office.

GT: This is George Romney, right?

Matt: George Romney, right. What really muddies the water is there are a number of brethren who support George Romney and not Benson. That’s another challenging issue.

GT: And Marion G. Romney is in the quorum. How is he related to George?

Matt: They’re cousins. So, we’ve got that dynamic going on, too. Romney has gotten priesthood blessings from President McKay, from other people about running and they tell him, “You’re going to run and we support you.” President McKay supports George Romney and tells him this.

If you were’t aware, George Romney is the father of Mitt Romney.  Harris tells how LDS leaders ended Benson’s political ambitions.
Byt the way, Harris’ book on Benson is now available for purchase on Amazon!  See https://amzn.to/2EHTklK

Check out our conversation….

Dr. Matt Harris describes Ezra Taft Benson's attempts to run for POTUS and how his political career ended.
Dr. Matt Harris describes Ezra Taft Benson’s attempts to run for POTUS and how his political career ended.

Our other interviews about Benson.

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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Almost Famous: 1969 Black Ordination Nixed by Lee

Despite several attempts to end the ban in the 1960s, Hugh B. Brown made one final attempt in 1969 and almost succeeded.  However, the attempt was nixed by Harold B. Lee. Dr. Matt Harris will give us more information on this, and I think you will hear some really amazing stuff in this next episode.

Matt:  Anyway, the McKay sons and Brown, when Taggart’s thesis comes out, they will use Taggart’s research and say, “Look.  This is just a policy.  This is a policy, it is not a doctrine.  So, if it is just a policy, President McKay, then we can overturn this.”  President McKay agrees to ordain a black man named Monroe Fleming, a loyal member at the Hotel Utah.  This is in September of 1969.

GT:  Wow.

Matt:  Yes, yes.  So, he agrees to ordain Monroe Fleming to the priesthood.  It is interesting, the document that I have that talks about this.  It just says Monroe Fleming.  It doesn’t say all persons of African ancestry.  But you can only imagine that if you allow Monroe Fleming the priesthood, based upon his worthiness of course, then that means that other worthy black members of the church can now hold the priesthood.  That’s how I interpret that.

[McKay] agrees to do it, and when Harold B. Lee and Joseph Fielding Smith, mostly Harold B. Lee, because Joseph Fielding Smith is now in his 90s, and his health is getting the best of him.  But when Harold B. Lee finds out about it, he puts an end to it and says, “This is not something that we can do, and if we do it, it has to have buy-in from the Quorum of the Twelve, the full quorum.”

So, President McKay, and I’m going to paraphrase, he says, “I’m too old to fight him.  I’m not going to do it.  We will let President Lee worry about this problem.”  That’s what he says, this “problem.”

We will also talk briefly about some of the BYU protests where other teams were protesting the church’s stance with blacks and the priesthood and temple ban.

Matt:  President Brown wants to lift the ban to get the athletic protests off their back.  In November of ’69 he tells Kenneth Pitzer the Stanford President.  He calls him up.  He said, “This is Hugh Brown of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I just want you to know, we are going to lift the ban.”

GT:  He calls the Stanford University president.

Matt:  Yes, he calls the Stanford president and tells him we are going to lift the ban, and even writes him a letter.

GT:  The reason why is because Stanford had just cancelled some sort of a series.

Matt:  Correct.

GT:  Was it football or basketball?  Do you remember?

Matt:  Basketball, I think it was basketball.  It was that fall, they cancelled their contract with BYU basketball.

Lee strongly rejected attempts for black ordination
Lee strongly rejected attempts for black ordination

Check out our other conversations with Matt, like Brown’s previous attempts to end the ban.  Check out our conversation….