“Bull. One simple word. I’d put the other word behind it, but we don’t talk that way.”
That’s how Don Harwell responded when asked if he felt compelled to support President Obama — a fellow African-American — in 2012.
The ‘we’ he referred to are the Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as “Mormons.”
Harwell abandoned the Roman Catholic tradition he was raised in and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church) in 1983.
He says he is proud of his African-American heritage and of the great strides the race has been able to achieve. He just doesn’t quite see eye-to-eye with Obama when it comes to politics, labeling the 44th president a socialist.
“Obama,” Harwell said, “doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
His support goes to former Godfather’s Pizza CEO turned Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney. According to Harwell, the former, has the business acumen necessary to run the nation and the latter — no pun intended — is a “good man,” who he knows personally.
But the consensus among black Mormons is that there is no consensus. Political views among African-American Latter-Day Saints run the spectrum and many of them say that the religious affiliation of Romney and of former Utah Republican governor Jon Huntsman does not play a role in their perceptions of the two as politicians. Color doesn’t seem to be an issue either, according to Harwell.
African-Americans Mormons, like Harwell, live with a poignant awareness that two traits of their self-identity have faced historical discrimination: one is being black, and the other, being a Mormon.
That’s why black Mormons appreciate the support found in organizations like, the Genesis Group. Harwell serves as president of the group, which was formed in 1971 as an auxiliary unit of the LDS Church to provide network for black Mormons and their friends and families.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints keeps no record of church members on the basis of race.
The LDS Church and black Mormons are familiar with bigotry. The founding prophet, Joseph Smith, said he began to see God and Jesus Christ in visions as a 14-year-old boy living in upstate New York. Through those visions, he transcribed the Book of Mormon and organized the Church in 1830. He and his followers traveled from Ohio to Missouri and Illinois, often forced to leave once word of their presence became known. Smith was martyred in 1844.
“The LDS Church has suffered greater religious persecution in its history than any other religious group in American history,” Harvard law professor Noah Feldman told the Desert News, a daily newspaper published in Salt Lake City, the city founded in 1847 by Mormon leader, Brigham Young.
“And make no mistake about it, that prejudice is real.”
Today, the LDS church is still viewed with suspicion and condemnation.
“We’re supposed to be peaceful and non-argumentative but it really irritates me when people make claims that they don’t know,” Harwell said.
A June poll conducted by the Pew Research Center that looks at candidate traits and experience shows a growing public acceptance of a homosexual presidential candidate, while opinions toward a possible Mormon president are largely unchanged since February 2007, when 64 percent said being a Mormon would not matter; 30 percent said they were less likely to support a Mormon for president; 2 percent said they were more likely.
The survey indicates a majority of Americans, 68 percent, say it would not matter to them if a presidential candidate were Mormon. However, a quarter said they would be less likely to support a Mormon. A breakdown by party affiliation showed that more Democrats than Republicans would be less likely support a Mormon candidate. Among those less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate, 63 percent say there is no chance they would vote for Mitt Romney and only 31 percent say there is at least some chance they would.
But the question of whether a Mormon can ever be president leaves some to remember that less than a few years ago, many Americans didn’t expect to see an African-American president any time soon.
“Obama’s election in 2008 and inauguration in 2009 represented the advancement of America in racial dialogue and relationships,” said Brigham Young University adjunct law professor Keith Hamilton.
“If a Latter-Day Saint were elected president, it would represent another example of how America has grown up about these issues,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton, the first black graduate of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, voted for Obama in the last presidential election and he said he will probably do so again in 2012.
“I don’t see anybody coming out of the Republican Party that would not make me vote for Obama,” Hamilton told theGrio.
For Hamilton, his support of Obama has nothing to do with race, but when it comes to his own race and his choice to become a Mormon, he finds that many non-Mormon African-Americans just don’t get it.
For some, Hamilton and other black Mormons, are betrayers.
Blacks in the LDS Church
Little is known about the African-American presence in the LDS Church, but records show they played a role nearly since the beginning.
When missions by the LDS Church began in the southern states in the late 1830s and early ‘40s, slaves were introduced to the Mormon teachings.
Elijah Abel, who is believed to have used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery, was one of the first known African-Americans baptized into the LDS Church in 1832. In 1936, Abel was ordained as an elder. His grandson was ordained in 1934 in the Aaronic priesthood.
These and other African-Americans operated in a denomination that did not allow them to become ordained as priests until 1978. Some church members have frowned upon interracial dating and the myth of a black skin curse is still a widely told story in Mormon circles. One version of the myth stems from the Biblical book of Genesis when Cain, after murdering his brother Abel, is cursed by God. Some say that Cain’s descendants were cursed with darker skin. Another explanation of dark skin asserts that blacks were cursed before they even existed as humans on earth. Mormons teach that a war in heaven took place when Jesus and Lucifer disagreed on whether or not humans should be given free will. Some believe the spirits that sided with Lucifer ended up being born as darker-skinned people.
“Even Brigham Young subscribed to the idea that blacks were the seed of Cain,” Hamilton said.
Such barriers and misconceptions are why some non-Mormon blacks question why any African-American would willingly join the LDS Church. Hamilton, Harwell and other black Mormons frequently encounter what they consider bigotry from fellow African-Americans.
“Some blacks have been harsh and said I had turned on my race and someone actually said I was less than a black man,” Hamilton told theGrio.
The 53-year-old said he was always the “different one” in his family. He said his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings all went to Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs), but he attended North Carolina State University, a predominantly white school.
At NC State, he was introduced to the LDS Church when two Mormon missionaries came to his apartment. In the Mormon teachings, he received answers to lingering questions regarding his parents who had passed away in his childhood.
“I would ask different ministers if my parents would recognize me in heaven and they couldn’t answer,” Hamilton said. “But LDS teaches that families can be eternal.”
He joined the LDS Church in 1980 and later settled in South Jordan, Utah where he is in the High Priest Leadership and works for the Air Force as a civilian attorney.
In Utah, where blacks comprise only 1.1 percent of its population according to the latest census data, Hamilton has the opportunity to achieve what other blacks have not. He became the first black cabinet member of the state of Utah, but he admits that living in a predominantly white community has its downside.
“You can’t get the fullness of the black experience out here,” he said.
Some African-American Mormons make it a point to interact with non-Mormon blacks.
Documentarian and public speaker Darius Gray habitually visits black churches in the Salt Lake City area. He enjoys the soulful music in those churches and remembers some of the songs from his childhood. His mother was a member of the Church of God in Christ denomination and his father attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“I was born black, now black and I will die black,” Gray, a Mormon of 47 years, told theGrio. A well-known figure in the local community, Gray produced a documentary called Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. He was also engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and continues to support human rights.
That’s why he was nearly stricken with grief when recalling a recent experience in a nearby predominantly black non-Mormon Church. He had visited the church to support the opening of their new building. During the ‘meet and greet’ portion of the service, Gray had encountered another visitor to the church. He said the man, a Seventh Day Adventist, was about 40 years of age.
Gray said that a church official later falsely accused him of proselytizing Mormon teachings to the Seventh Day Adventist. That’s when Gray said he went to his seat, took his coat, and left the church.
“It hurt me,” he said. “I had experienced bigotry here in my own community and it just cut to the core.”
Black by birth, Mormon by Choice
48-year-old, Marguerite Driessen, said one frequently asked question is how could she choose to belong to a racist church.
Driessen was born in Germany and both her parents, a Jamaican father and her mother from West Virginia, were in the U.S. military. She said her international experience and multicultural background makes it easier for her to “step outside of the community,” and do what many African-Americans deem as culturally unacceptable to do — become a Mormon.
Certainly, blacks outside of the United States do not share the same stigmas associated with Mormonism. The Caribbean and Africa are the fastest growing areas of the LDS Church.
The most recent statistics show a total church membership of nearly 320,000 in Africa. The LDS Church began sending missionaries to Africa in the early 1850s, beginning in South Africa. Dr. A.F. Mensah of Ghana became a leader in the Ghanaian Mormon community in the 1960s.
Today, the church reports sizable congregations in Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. More than 4,000 new members joined in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year. One of the reasons for such growth is because of the robust humanitarian aid efforts implemented in Africa by the LDS Church. Church-funded clean water initiatives, educational programs and medical support projects can be found throughout the continent.
When the West Indies Mission began in 1983 (though missionaries had been in the area before that time), many in the Caribbean islands were introduced and later joined the church. Recent statistics report a membership of “5,721 in Jamaica”:http://newsroom.lds.org/country/jamaica; “16,902 in Haiti”:http://newsroom.lds.org/country/haiti; 2,885 in Trinidad and Tobago.
Gray believes that blacks from these places have more liberty to explore Mormonism because they do not have the same history of racial oppression as African-Americans do. He said because black Africans have lived with black African presidents and prime ministers and live in countries run by predominantly black African government officials, they do not see the LDS Church as a distinctly “white” church.
“They have a different outlook…they were always the majority [in their countries],” explained Gray. “Here in the United States, we [African-Americans] came here as slaves and we were in servitude hundreds of years and we’re still dealing with the aftermath of Jim Crow.”
As in the days of the Jim Crow laws and the antebellum era, the LDS Church did practice racial bigotry, but church members say great strides have taken place to overcome the past.The formation of the Genesis Group is an example.
Nonetheless, many African-American Latter-Day Saints are still the only ones in their families who have chosen to join the LDS Church. Their siblings and relatives are often part of the more mainstream denominations: Baptist, AME, Pentecostal, etc.
Being black by birth and Mormon by choice for many in America means choosing not to judge people by race or religion or even political party, but by content of character.