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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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Hugh B. Brown’s Attempt to End Ban in 1962!

The United States were grappling with the Civil Rights Movement during the tumultuous 1960s.  In our next conversation with Matt Harris, we will talk about key events in the 1960s that affect the LDS Church’s teaching about race and how the Civil Rights Movement impacted the Mormon Church.  We will even learn that Elder Brown predicted to end ban in 1962 General Conference!

Matt: Hugh B. Brown was front and center in church leadership trying to get the brethren to overturn the ban.  He is working behind the scenes.  He is doing the best that he can, but it is very, very challenging for him.  In 1962 he will have a private meeting with Lowell Bennion, whom we have already talked about who didn’t support the ban and told President McKay in private. So, it was no secret that President McKay knew where Brother Bennion stood.  Anyway, in March of 1962, Hugh B. Brown tells Lowell Bennion, “We’re going to lift the ban here next month.  Make sure you come to [General] Conference.”[1]

GT:  ’62?!

Matt:  This is March of ’62.

GT:  Wow.

Matt: “Come to Conference next month.  We’re going to lift the ban.”

The prediction of course is in April of ’62, we’re going to have this big announcement at General Conference.  “We have been studying this issue, and there is nothing more difficult for the church,” Brown tells Bennion, “than this issue, and we’re going to fix it.”

So, I can only imagine Bennion showing up and nothing happens!

We will also talk about the motivation behind the 1949 First Presidency statement, and apostle Hugh B. Brown’s attempts to rescind the ban.

Matt:  Recognizing that Lowry Nelson had spent time in Cuba as part of his profession, his field research, he decided to reach out to Nelson and ask him about Cuba and the racial population there because Nelson had lived there for a while.  Lowry Nelson wrote back and just said, “I don’t think you can determine who has got negroid blood, and you shouldn’t even try!  That’s just immoral!”

Nelson said something that is probably less than candid.  He said, “That was the first time I knew that the church felt this way about this.”

Come on Lowry.  You grew up in the church.  So, Lowry Nelson writes the First Presidency after he exchanged correspondence with his good friend Heber Meeks.  He said, “Is it true that you are trying to establish a mission in Cuba, and just focus on the white population there and not the colored, the brown population?  Is that true?”

The First Presidency wrote him back a series of letters.  They said, “Yes that is true, and we don’t understand why God wants this ban, but this is the way it is.  Who are you to determine what God should do?”

Nelson was really upset with the response, thinking that it was just a policy that could be changed.  But the brethren dug their heels in and sort of exacerbated the problem.  When they wrote back to Lowry Nelson, it was the first time where the First Presidency goes on record, and they sign the letter.  It is interesting.  They all sign these letters back and forth, all three of them:  George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay.  Clearly, they are trying to make a statement about the church’s racial teachings, at least by the mid-20th century.

What is interesting is he shares these letters on the underground with people.  He sends them to Juanita Brooks.[2]  He sends them to George Boyd who is the Institute person.  He sends them to all of these Institute people that he felt like he had a liberal kinship with, and they write him back.  ”Oh my goodness.  I didn’t know the brethren felt this way, that they felt this strongly about it.”

We’ll also talk about Michigan and Mormon Governor George Romney’s run for the U.S. presidency. You might recognize his famous son Mitt Romney did the same just a few years ago.  George Romney’s cousin was also an LDS Apostle, and the 1960s had a lot of factions for and against the ban on blacks from temple and priesthood.

Matt:  I think nationally this racial story gets really highlighted when George Romney decides to run for president.  This is really interesting.  He is the governor of a state that has a heavy African-American population.

Now think about that for a moment.  Your church doesn’t grant priesthood rights to black people, and you are running in a campaign for governor, and you are having to convince people that you are not a racist or that somehow if you are elected you won’t listen to their needs and create public policy that will benefit their lives.

When George Romney is governor, when it is known that he is considering a run for the presidency, it is pretty interesting because a lot of the news media are writing about the LDS Church priesthood ban, and that Governor Romney may be a racist because his church is racist.  It’s pretty tough stuff, and George Romney will say something interesting.  He will say, “If you want to know my views on race, look at my record when I was the governor.  Look at what I did with civil rights.”

So, he cleverly sidesteps his church’s racial teachings and puts the spotlight on him, which is truthfully probably what he probably should have done and what he did.  But nonetheless the media will continue to hammer this issue.  Spencer W. Kimball in particular, he writes letters to various people.  He writes in his journal, and he says, “The media is just killing us with George Romney.  Is that all they ever want to talk about is the negro issue?”

This is an awesome episode you won’t want to miss!  (Don’t forget Part 1-Brazil, Part 2-One Drop Rule, and Part 3-McKay 1955)

Hugh B. Brown predicted an announcement in 1962 General Conference would overturn the ban.
Hugh B. Brown predicted an announcement in 1962 General Conference would overturn the ban.

Check out our conversation….

[1] LDS leaders hold a twice annual conference where members hear the prophet, apostles, Seventies, young men, your women, and Primary (children’s) leaders speak every April and October.  LDS members often refer to the meetings as simply “Conference.”  In the 1960s, General Conference lasted 3 days, but was shorted to two days in 1977.  See  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Conference_(LDS_Church)

[2] Juanita Brooks wrote the first scholarly book exposing Mormon involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  See https://amzn.to/2LcbRrG