Black Mormon panelists: LDS Church must face its racial history

Thirty-five years after the LDS Church lifted its ban on blacks being ordained to its all-male priesthood, African-American Mormons still experience subtle discrimination, exclusion and self-doubt, said three panelists on Tuesday’s hourlong Trib Talk.

The trio — black Latter-day Saints Marvin Perkins, of Los Angeles; Paulette Payne, of Atlanta; and Darron Smith of Memphis, Tenn. — agreed that part of the problem was a lack of discussion of the controversial ban, the perpetuation of false ideas about its cause (black skin being the "curse of Cain" or that blacks were "less valiant" in what Mormons call the premortal existence) and ignorance about the role of black Mormon pioneers.

Awareness of these issues is critical, Payne said, not only to find new converts and to retain the church’s black members but also for white Mormons to understand their history.

Members need to know that the ban "was of man and not of God," Perkins said. "The wall came down [in 1978], but the church didn’t clean up the debris."

As long as LDS leaders think the problem is over, they will never weed out racism, Smith said. "The 1978 lifting of the priesthood ban was a good start, but it was not enough. I’m an advocate for an official apology. We cannot move forward unless we atone for past deeds."

Perkins doesn’t think that blacks need an apology, but added that white members do.

"An apology benefits the person giving it," he said, "more than the ones receiving it."

Smith worries that Mormons will still be talking about the issue on the 40th, 50th and even 100th anniversary of the ban unless the Utah-based faith "makes sweeping changes."

Perkins is more hopeful. "We’ve brought thousands blacks into the church," he said, "and educated hundreds of thousands of members about the history."

He and others "are engaged in the work ... and making sweeping changes" at the grass-roots level, he said. "There will be a much different celebratory tone in our next celebration."

Last year, LDS officials repudiated the "curse of Cain," "premortal exisitence" and similar explanations for the priesthood ban as folk beliefs. The official position is that only God knows the reason.

"Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice," says a new preamble to the historic June 1978 "revelation" ending the ban. "Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance."