History is Made by the Many: A response to Margaret Young’s “Shall We Protest?”


September 10, 2013 by tristan savage

by Tristan Call

Earlier today, Margaret Young published “Priesthood Restrictions – Shall We Protest?” on her blog on Patheos. She argues that the quiet agitation and private meetings with junior Mormon apostles of three African-descended Mormons throughout the 70’s were the main actions that led to the end of the ban on ordaining African-descended men. While Young appears to support the ordination of women, the piece has been widely shared online by both supporters and opponents of women’s ordination as a way of distancing themselves from the upcoming plans of Ordain Women activists to peacefully and straightforwardly request entry to the General Conference Priesthood Session in October. This is a response to Young’s article, and a request for clarification of some of her premises.

I appreciate that Margaret Young’s article “Shall We Protest?” keeps the discussion in the realm of sound strategy (how to effectively go about overturning a sexist priesthood ban that should never have existed) rather than dwelling on arguments about obedience and prophetic infallibility, as many opponents of the Ordain Women movement have done. Young’s approach keeps us grounded in concrete strategy, which is crucial. It’s possible to engage with strategy, it’s possible to disagree respectfully, and it’s a practical way to learn from movements of the past and adapt their strategies to our circumstances.

University of Wyoming football players who were expelled from the team for opposing racism at BYU in 1969, fueling a movement to expel BYU from the Western Area Conference with rallies of thousands in Arizona, Washington, and elsewhere

University of Wyoming football players who were expelled from the team for opposing racism at BYU in 1969, fueling a movement to expel BYU from the Western Area Conference with rallies of thousands in Arizona, Washington, and elsewhere

Here’s my problem with Young’s argument: it takes a highly constricted view of how social change occurs in general, and how the white supremacist priesthood ban ended, in particular. Nowhere does the article mention the massive national boycott of BYU athletics that was causing major financial and social impacts throughout that period. Or the importance of anti-racist organizing and decolonization movements (not just in the United States- in South Africa and Brazil, too, as well as almost every other country where the Mormon mission program was expanding at the time) that were directly challenging white control of resources at the church as well as at the national and international levels. It leaves out the years of protests and lawsuits, as well as quiet requests for meetings, planned by the Salt Lake NAACP to push the LDS Church not only to support ordination of black men but also to support equal housing, employment, and other civil rights legislation. Instead, Young’s piece only ever mentions three individuals (and a few of their friends) as having any impact on the change of the priesthood ban, making it seem like history is made by a few charismatic, well-behaved, people, single-handedly.

The overall implication of this article is the suggestion that 3 people, isolated from any base of support, with no power of numbers to counteract the power of historical intertia and intentional exclusion, can (and did) turn the tide of white supremacy. It suggests (against the long evidence of Civil Rights history) that organizing as communities makes us weaker rather than stronger. It suggests that speaking up publicly will hurt our cause.

So I’d like to ask Margaret Young to clarify a few things. I think the answers to these questions can help us think strategically about how to overturn the priesthood ban, which I think we both agree is a milestone towards the loving, generous, and equitable society we’d like to live in:

1) Why do you suggest that public statements and protest would hurt the overall goal of Women’s ordination? Is it that it would embolden the cause’s opponents? Would it anger the general authorities we are attempting to reach? Would it take up too much time that women should instead be using to plan meetings behind closed doors with the Quorum of the Twelve?

2) What relationship do you see between the broader context of anti-racist and anti-colonial organizing at the community level in the United States and internationally, and the eventual removal of the priesthood ban against African-descended men? Did it speed the process? Slow it down?

3) What impact do you see the thousands of African and African-descended church members and investigators having had on the overturning of the priesthood ban? You suggest that there was considerable ‘complications’ for the Church in South Africa, the Philippines, Brazil, and elsewhere- did the questions, resistance, insistence, agitation, or other activities of the multitude have any impact on the overturning of the priesthood ban, or do you believe that it can be entirely attributed to the actions of three charistmatic strategists and supportive members of the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency?

4) Finally, you tell the story of Gene Orr attending general conference in 1971, which you report resulting in a racist exclusionary response from the usher(s), followed by a victorious inclusionary response from Elder Packer.

“In October 1971, the three black brethren were invited to attend the General Priesthood Session of General Conference. However, this did not go smoothly.

As Gene Orr approached the entryway to the priesthood meeting, the usher drew the red rope across the doorway and hooked it. Gene looked at it for a moment. He reported to me, “I did the only thing I could do—the right thing. I stepped over the rope.” He went directly up to Elder Packer on the stand and reported what had happened. Elder Packer talked to a security guard and had him send an intercom message to all ushers: “There will be two more.” Yes, three “Negroes” attended the Priesthood Session before 1978.” (excerpt from Young’s article)

Orr’s act of disobedience -stepping over the red rope- appears to have pushed Elder Packer to reaffirm a prior commitment and defend Brother Orr’s right to attend the meeting. What corollary are you suggesting for the Ordain Women movement- that women wait until invited by President Packer to attend priesthood session? Under what conditions do you anticipate this occurring?

Another way of asking this fourth question: if President Packer is not as receptive in 2013 as he was in 1971, and if he declines to meet with women who seek to overturn today’s priesthood ban as he apparently was willing to with African-descended men in 1971, what are women to do? This question is the question of the marginalized and the excluded, the question of those who are not able to crack through the glass ceiling and land on the schedules and agenda books of the Brethren. If those “who have the power to change things” are not amenable to meeting, what is your Plan B?

A third and final way of asking this question is: there are always those who will be selected as the ‘good activist’ and invited in to talk with decision-makers behind closed doors while others are excluded from the circle of fellowship and discussion. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the contemporary and posthumous attempts to divide-and-conquer Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, who were both shot for their visionary impatience before they saw the priesthood ban lifted, and who seemed to recognize the ultimate consilience of their movements despite their differences of strategy. This tendency to divide good, obedient activists from unruly, impatient activists and reward the former while excluding the latter was used in 1971, and it is used today. What should those people do who are excluded, whether because of their skin color, their gender, their working-class job, their sexual orientation, their shaky faith, or their geographical distance from the Utah center of power? We know that there are sure to be a few well-placed women who will at some point be invited into those closed-door discussions and will one day receive prophetic license to step over the red rope. Perhaps, as Young implies, some women already have. But those of us who will never receive those invitations exist too. What do you suggest we do? And if some of us choose to step over the rope without permission, will we let it divide us?



Postscript: In order to further clarify, I’m going to copy in here part of an exchange with the gracious Margaret Young, in which I explain more about why I found this response necessary:

How [we] construct the narrative, the story, of overturning the priesthood ban, in this article, makes it seem that the contributions of a small number of diplomatic activists who received personal invitations from apostles are the decisive contributions, whereas the contributions of many thousands of others who agitated for the same ends are nowhere to be seen. The reason that this is important is that most if not all of us are in the second group- we will never be in those private meetings, and so the history of those like us is not available to us, and replaced by someone else’s history. The strategic lessons we can draw about what to do today, lessons we might learn by examining the actions of those like us in the 1970’s, are replaced by the strategic lessons of others who we could never be. I will be the first to say that [Margaret Young’s] knowledge of the era and the variety of strategies to fight Mormon white supremacy is superior to mine, and I respect [her] depth of knowledge about it. I think [she] would be well positioned to write a history of the many and share it with us as well. Especially as we are talking about strategy.

…One of the purposes of this dialogue is to point out what was absent [in the original article], to bring in the alternative and additional pieces of the puzzle that were removed from or written out of the story. Maybe even, once those other pieces are put back on the table, to re-order the puzzle pieces and suggest we prioritize them differently.

I think something [Young] said [in our Facebook thread discussion] reinforces the different ways we are approaching the issue: [Young said of her article that] “my focus was on the three who became the faces of all blacks for those who met with them”. While well-selected spokespeople are a crucial strategic component of any social movement, it is also perhaps the most dangerous part of social change, since it tends to erase the contributions of those whose faces are not seen, in favor of a small number of people who are then credited with almost superhuman impact.

16 thoughts on “History is Made by the Many: A response to Margaret Young’s “Shall We Protest?”

  1. anonymous for this says:

    I need to speak. I don’t know who Margaret Young is. Descended from Brigham Young? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.

    But the fact is that Joseph Smith did give the ‘blacks’ the priesthood. The fact is that during Joseph Smith’s time the women had powers. They may not have been exactly the same as the men, but they existed. Mercy! A prophet’s mother gave a blessing to a sick ox.

    The fact is that Brigham Young changed all that, so “prophetic infallibility” is a flimsy excuse for one hundred and fifty years of disobedience that resulted in hurt to many people.

    I am descended from black LDS pioneers. They “passed”. If you know much about African American culture, you will know what that means.

    It was kept quiet for several generations, so that the white boys could get the priesthood. There were bishops and stake presidents and at least six missionaries who served in one small part of the family alone, not to mention the many others.

    One generation received the priesthood (in the early 1900s) and then stood back and didn’t use it, keeping a low profile. The black (mixed, obviously) ancestors came from another country and didn’t speak American English, so that helped them to “pass”. They didn’t come to Utah until after Brigham Young died.

    I can tell you that the secrecy alone has been very destructive to our family. The not knowing where we fit. We only started talking about this in the late 1900s when the woman who kept the secret (who almost reached 100 years of age) died. She passed on the secret to those she trusted.

    It’s very, very hard for me to respect that whole ‘prophet infallibility’ concept. It’s hard for me, now, to have much respect for Joseph Fielding Smith. You see, those who were trusted with the secret weren’t told until they were much older, and we all thought we were white.

    I remember meeting Joseph Fielding Smith when I didn’t know he was a racist, and before I knew about our black ancestors.

    Knowing now that he basically kept David O. McKay from lifting the ban makes it hard for me to reconcile how I felt about him.

    It was a ban. It was a lifting of a ban. Joseph Smith gave the blacks the priesthood. He didn’t believe in slavery.

    It was Brigham Young who turned everything around. Who went against the prophet of the restoration to persecute and discriminate in a way that could only be unGodly.

    He’ll answer for it. In the meantime, so many people suffered.

    As for women and the priesthood, I am not sure what should happen. Women had a unique gift given to them. Much of what passes for the priesthood today is merely administrative anyway. Policies can’t hold back spiritual power. The civil rights movement showed the world spiritual power. And the oppression that black Americans and black Africans and blacks throughout the world have experienced has refined them in many cases. Yes, there are exceptions. There are “bad guys” in every race. But the institutionalized racism that created so much hatred with slavery and its cousin practices has yet to die.

    President Kimball had his weaknesses, but he did the right thing in 1978. But it wasn’t revelation. It was restoration. The priesthood should never have been taken away. Will a tribunal of blacks face Brigham Young and accuse him on the judgement day? I don’t know. I rather hope not. I hope that “we” will rise above that.

  2. anonymous for this says:

    I need to add that in every generation someone ‘black’ is born. Dark enough and unique enough in feature to turn heads in an LDS pre-1978 sacrament meeting.

    We saw these people in our family struggle, be rejected, experience persecution and, eventually, leave the church.

    Several of these young men were born after 1978. Young men who look 1/4 or 1/2 black.

    All of them have left the church, even when light-complected brothers (in the same family)/siblings have served missions and married in the temple.

    The shame of it continues. Both in the family and apparently in how those who look a little bit different are treated.

    This problem hasn’t gone away. It won’t go away until race doesn’t matter anymore. I’m proud of my black ancestry, but when I expressed that to some good ward friends recently, they were speechless. They didn’t know what to say. I think they had just made a comment that exposed that they had some prejudice. It’s still an uphill battle, but I’m fighting it.

  3. anonymous for this says:

    I remember asking one of my parents when I was young, “why does uncle/aunt ___________ look like a black person?”–

    That parent didn’t know the secret. I didn’t find it out until many years later. And I can see why they weren’t trusted with the knowledge.

    The answer was a brush off and a “some people just look like that.”

    This is the first time I’ve spoken up about it. I have tried with a few close friends. Some just get very quiet. There are other friends who don’t know who have shown that they are prejudiced towards minorities. It is hard to pretend friendship with such people, but it’s even harder to trust them with this knowledge.

  4. Tariq Khan says:

    Very thoughtful questions, Tristan. I argue that the impatient, “unruly” activists — rather than hurt movements — actually act as a catalyst to make those discussions with “reasonable” activists happen. Because of widespread criticism and activism, such as the church faced in the 1970s concerning the racist priesthood van, leaders realize that they have to do something. So, they figure out who the “well-behaved, moderate” voices of dissent are and invite them in, because that is the safest course of action. But leaders are not interested in talking to those “moderate” dissenters until AFTER there is a wider, more unruly movement (such as the Boycott of BYU athletics) facing them.

    • anonymous for this says:

      Yes, Tariq, you are correct.

      I really support Martin Luther King’s non-violence, though.

      But it was those willing to make noise who made a difference, and I am grateful to them.

      • anonymous for this says:

        and though Gandhi called for non-violence, there were many Indians who died. Much like the anti-Nephi Lehites who were ‘mowed down’ by the British (some of them Indian by birth) guard–

        There were those who died. They may not have acted with violence, but they had violence done to them–

  5. […] to address this is through personal conversations with leaders in power.  Tristan Call has kindly responded, arguing that she has failed to take into account the role of social movements and […]

  6. Forest Simmons says:

    Most people have heard the story of the district president who gently told a new branch president that it wasn’t right for the young women to pass the sacrament; only the deacons and other PH holders could do that. A few weeks later when the district president was visiting again, he noticed that the young women were still passing the sacrament. When asked about it the branch president cheerfully responded, “Don’t worry. We ordained the young women right after you explained the problem.”

    I wonder what the sequel is. Did they un-ordain them, or did they ordain them high priests like they did to most of the stake seventies when President Benson announced that non-GA 70’s quorums had been a mistake.

    Long before President Benson made the policy change (based on his interpretation of D&C 107:25?) I read that the Seventy were to be “especial witnesses” unto the Gentiles. I was pondering and wondering just how special, since similar language was used two verses earlier referring to the Twelve. An impression came to me: “as special as you make it.”

    After President Benson announced the change I felt chagrin for having held an office in the Priesthood by mistake. But then when I thought about the “as special as you make it” principle, I felt better; since I had put my whole heart into that calling.

    I totally empathize with anybody who feels put down by a denial of opportunity to serve in some special way. I also hope that while they are working to make their dream come true, they can see that titles and positions are not everything they are cracked up to be. In the spring of 2002 I dreaded being called as bishop, and five years later when they released me it was the biggest relief since my successful return from Vietnam 38 years earlier.

    Which would be harder for Sister Brown (the generic female investigator back in the flannel board discussion days) … to accept Sister X as another wife for her husband? or to have her husband serve in the bishopric with Sister Y? Having mixed-gender bishoprics might be a greater trial than polygamy for many saints. But what is the alternative?

    Suppose that you were in a ward where most of the PH leadership callings were filled by the best people, i.e. by women, in addition to the RS, Primary, and YW callings. I would enjoy it very much, like i did my idyllic childhood days when my older sister was responsible for everything and i could focus on just having fun. Currently “fun” would be concentrating on being dad and grandpa, as well as member missionary at large. I would pinch myself, saying “this is too good to be true.”

    But what do I know? I’m sure that people who have thought this through more carefully could easily spoil the fun!

  7. Nahomie says:

    One of my grand mothers was part of the French resistance during World War Two. She was simply passing messages hidden under fruits or milk in the basket of her bicycle. It was a non violent gesture, she never knew what the messages contained, but it was her part into a wider organisation that was clandestine and being part of it could mean death to her and all she knew but despite being young she knew it was right. Others blew up train tracks, assassinated politicians and killed members of the gestapo, nazis and any person who would cooperate with the nazis and be a threat to freedom.

    Whatever the cause you need people to do the simple things and the complicated ones. Either way if you are found out before success the consequences will fall but whatever is done matters. Every contribution helps and will make a difference, we do not know how much we can do by simply talking to a friend in secret or walking in front of the Church’s offices but it is better to do something than nothing if we know it is right. We should not just expect that someone will luckily get a private interview with the Twelve and do nothing in the meantime. Nothing will change if we are not showing that we want it, need it and feel that it has to change.

  8. Bro. Jones says:

    The problem with the argument here is that the LDS church is not an institution like a political entity or corporation. Not only is it unresponsive to shame or public pressure, but it doesn’t really have any resources to threaten in a way that can bring change. Threaten finances? Impossible, the church is rich. Threaten to leave the membership? Nobody will miss you, and you’ll r labeled “offended” at best and apostate at worst. Suggest that missionary work will be harmed? The race issue was in a good place in time and society to create institutional change in that regard, but there are enough non-LDS people who oppose greater recognition of groups like women or gays that you won’t see global outrage with the LDS status quo. Missionary work has not been halted by Prop 8, and it’ll be at least another generation before general homophobia has died down enough that the average person will be bothered by conservative LDS beliefs.

    In short, the church is a unique institution that is nearly immune to outside (or even internal) pressure for reform. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it is what it is. We cannot impose sufficient costs on the church to create change, but those leading the charge have a LOT to lose, sadly. By leaning towards “good” activism, we can at least avoid ostracism and spiritual blackmail of all those who support an issue. Change will only come from the top in the LDS church, so it’s as much a waiting game as anything.

    • The Church is resistant to change, sure. So are other, bigger social realities (capitalism, the US Empire, white supremacy, the for-profit educational system, etc). While I agree that it’s difficult to make change when institutions react defensively, we also shouldn’t be surprised that processes of positive social change take a lot of time and a lot of work. It does take work, though. It’s not a ‘waiting game’.

      • Bro. Jones says:

        It totally takes work–I’m just a little reluctant to encourage activists from taking certain actions. The same actions could be extremely effective against other institutions, but I think they’d just result in the major LDS decisionmakers digging in even further. Bringing visibility to a issues and encouraging discussion are major first steps. Skipping ahead to direct action work won’t work with the church.

    • anonymous for this says:

      Brother Jones,

      I agree with your conclusion, but the church is a corporation–

      and it has strong political inclinations–even though it claims political neutrality–

      The fact is that the 2012 national elections showed that the GOP is also resistant to change, also only changes from the top down–

      it was a tragedy and a fiasco–

      so, political entities don’t change that well either, many of them–

      The GOP is sinking itself, because it resists change; I am not certain the Democrats are any different–

      Many Democrats who attended the national convention before the 2012 elections were enraged at how they and their concerns were ignored.

      I am afraid the present is a very good time for huge, monolithic organizations of all kinds and a very bad time for positive change–

      there are grassroots changes taking place all over, but those at the ‘top’ are not listening–

  9. lashawn says:

    A few thinkings-out-loud.

    What is the gender equivalent to the exclusion of black families from priesthood /temple blessings pre-1978? You mention that Young fails to note the international push for change/restoration of the Priesthood and instead credits it to 3 black men in Utah.

    What would be the 2013 push for women’s equality without looking symbolic? International Women’s rights and issues center around education, child brides, rape, sex trafficking, genital mutilation, honor killings, etc. What is the opportunity for connection with mostly white American women wanting to be equal in spiritual access to act in the name of God?

    I’m not saying they should be complacent with what they have because others are far worse off,. I’m wondering, if internal and external pressure pushed the hardest for change..what’s our 2013 equivalent for the mostly white women who have been allowed “access to the priesthood through marrying an approved race priesthood holder” and now want it individually themselves…whether to administer in the church or officiate in blessings/anointings?

    • I think this is exactly the right question for us to be asking. Effective alliance-building between mostly white American Mormon women and mostly Mormon women of color outside of the US will depend on finding that convergence. I’ll think about this and see if I can come up with anything.

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