The years 1968-1971 were critical years for Latter-day Saints’ Church of Jesus Christ and its colleges. You have certainly ushered in a new age for BYU cougars.
During this time of great unrest and tremendous advances in civil rights, Brigham Young University was regularly attacked – particularly by sports teams from other universities who believed that playing a school that had a high profile racist policy was a moral problem pursued.
Discrimination against Mormonism was certainly no secret, as it taught from its meetinghouses and general conferences around the world that blacks with their dark skin had been cursed for not being brave in the premortal war in heaven.
Since Mormon teaching entered the world of religions in 1830, the priesthood – available to all worthy whites – has not been available to men of African descent. During its pre-Enlightenment period, BYU was strictly segregated, with the exception that then-President David O. McKay awarded two Nigerians scholarships in connection with an experimental pilot program in their country in the 1950s.
McKay’s advisor, Harold B. Lee, protested the move at a BYU trustee meeting, and the program was immediately discontinued.
Remember that the old Hotel Utah, owned by the Church, did not allow blacks until the 1950s – and then only through the service entrance – and the LDS Hospital, also owned by the Mormons, once deemed it necessary to To mention this, his blood bank was filled entirely with white blood (the American Red Cross maintained a practice of separating blood until 1950).
While church leaders eventually sought to bury the doctrine as a deviant personal prejudice from their second president and prophet, Brigham Young, there is clear evidence that Mormons believed – and some still believe – that people of African descent were cursed by God. Despite more modern pronouncements, there is ample evidence that it was indeed a matter of doctrine.
In the meantime, the Church maintained its racial views and refused full enrollment for black students. But the wind of change was already on the move. In preparation for a 1969 soccer game with BYU, 14 Black University of Wyoming soccer players decided to wear armbands to protest BYU’s policies.
It could have been an effective statement. Instead, their coach suspended the players because their university’s rules prohibited protest. All 14 were robbed of their scholarships and banned from UW sports. Really sad, but opposition to BYU segregation was only just beginning.
Teams like Stanford and San Jose State refused to play BYU, and during those tense racial years there were regular protests, demonstrations, pickets and even some violent confrontations at games – things that BYU could not ignore and that the Mormon Church was forced to do address.
And of course it did. Mormon historians and authorities may try to circumvent the effects of an ever-challenged all-white sports program, but it was mainly BYU sports that moved the Church towards more inclusive policies.
BYU football was on the way to greatness. The rest is history. In 1978, then Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that black Latter-day Saints should be allowed to receive the priesthood.
Here’s my own version of that story: Apparently, God finally got his first look at satellite television in 1975 and became a rabid BYU sports fan. He just wanted BYU to win, but that was practically impossible. Presto! The black exclusion doctrine has been eliminated.
Now that you understand that God is a soccer fan, you know why your prayers are sent direct to voicemail on Saturday night. There he is sitting with his bowl of popcorn and on match days he simply does not allow himself to be bothered by the little things of humanity.
While doing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at U, I am delighted to know that another team from Utah is headed for a great football season. Today BYU Football has around 43 colored players, an equally integrated coaching staff, and BYU has been inducted into the Big 12 Conference.
It seems that the 1978 revelation was a great success. Switching to Technicolor made all the difference.
Private Eye is off this week. Michael S. Robinson is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist, and former Army Public Information Assistant for the Vietnamese Army. Send feedback to [email protected]