SAN ANTONIO — Stakes will partner with local NAACP branches in areas like Baltimore, Atlanta and New Jersey this fall to provide joint self-reliance courses in what will be the first practical application of the new relationship between the Church and the famous black civil rights organization.
“I hope this will be just the beginning of an important new alliance between friends,” said Elder Jeffery R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The NAACP is certainly one of the most legendary organizations in the black community and one of the most charitable as well. This is an opportunity to have like-minded people with like-minded motives wanting to help each other toward common goals.”
Elder Jack N. Gerard, General Authority Seventy, announced the new initiative on behalf of the Church on July 15 in San Antonio at the 109th NAACP Annual Convention, where some of the thousands of attendees expressed surprise over the relationship with the Church. The unexpectedness extended to a statement from the podium by the vice-chair of the NAACP board of directors.
“There were some rumblings,” Karen Boykin-Towns said about the organization’s decision to hold its May quarterly board meeting in Salt Lake City. “A few board members expressed some concerns. I was definitely one of those folks wondering, ‘Why are we going to Utah?’ ”
The historic joint press conference at the Church Administration Building included tandem calls by President Russell M. Nelson and NAACP President Derrick Johnson for an end to all prejudice and for increased civility and understanding of others.
“If you ask most board members in attendance, you will hear what an eye-opening experience that meeting was,” Boykin-Towns said from the convention podium. “You could feel the importance of our visit wherever we went. For the approximately 500,000 black Mormons in their Church, our visit and our meeting was surprising, impactful and groundbreaking. And despite our reservations, we left that historic meeting with a better understanding of each other’s history and the desire to acknowledge the past and move forward to work together for the common good.”
Since then, the two organizations have been working on President Nelson’s suggestion that education and humanitarian services would be good places to begin working together practically.
A group composed of members of the Church, the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, sang at three NAACP convention events at the invitation of Leon Russell, chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors. Russell asked the choir to sing “Calvary” directly before his main convention speech and told the convention that he sees part of his role as spotting talent. When he saw Bonner’s choir sing in Salt Lake City, he told a companion, “I want that choir!” at the convention.
The performance won over the audience, including calls of support during a solo by Pleasant Grove, Utah’s Tierra Custer as she sang of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Can you hear Him calling His Father in Heaven” and “He didn’t have to do it, but He died for me.” The convention gave the choir a standing ovation.
Bonner, an African-American who has been a Latter-day Saint for 35 years, shared the excitement Russell expressed to her over the Church/NAACP relationship. “Dialogue is starting now where dialogue has not been before,” she said.
Regarding the new cooperative effort, Elder Gerard said local Church members will teach the first courses in employment and education, training local NAACP branch members to do so. The courses will take place wherever the trainees are comfortable. He said he could envision a rotation, where one course is held at an NAACP branch location, the next at a black Baptist church and a third at a stake center.
The initial courses are expected to include “Starting and Growing My Own Business,” “Effectively Handling Personal Finances,” “Better Education for Better Income” and “Finding Better Work.”
The NAACP’s senior leadership team of Johnson, Boykin-Towns and Russell all were present at the May press conference. They all expressed optimism about the new initiative.
Johnson said the next area for collaboration is likely to be disaster relief. Mormon Helping Hands projects have worked side-by-side with NAACP groups in the past.
“It’s crucial for our groups along the coastal areas,” Johnson said. “Those will be important collaborative opportunities.”
Elder Holland said the new relationship is an opportunity to clear up misperceptions on both sides.
Earlier this year, Elder Holland made a courtesy call to the NAACP’s offices in Jackson, Mississippi, which had been the base of operations for civil rights activist Medgar Evers before he was assassinated in 1963. Elder Holland was impressed by the devotion of the leaders he met and the legacy Evers had left behind, but he found the office needed repairs.
“Here were these sweet, good people working so industriously trying to be good citizens and pursue their cause,” he said. “I said to the local leaders attending with me, ‘We can’t have colleagues and associates in such a good cause working in conditions like that.”
Upon his return to Church headquarters, he secured funding and the Jackson Mississippi Stake organized Young Single Adults to join 14 full-time missionaries on the project. They replaced the carpets, painted the walls and made electrical and plumbing repairs.
“It was just a kindness and a courtesy from one neighbor to another,” Elder Holland said. “In fact I would like to think the reason this new relationship is significant and succeeding is because there wasn’t ever any ulterior motive. It’s the way the gospel is supposed to work. It’s the way people are supposed to live together. This country and the whole world could benefit from a little more Christian neighborliness. Out of small things proceedeth that which is great. I think something great can proceed out of this new relationship.”