Stewart Udall, U.S. Representative from Arizona and Secretary of the Interior during President Kennedy's and President Johnson's administrations, was no shrinking violet. He came from a strong Mormon background, but he carried an indisputable independent streak when it came to his beliefs.
At the time of his marriage and graduation from law school in 1947, Udall wrote down his reasons for disaffection from the church, which included a difficulty with fellowshipping with other members because "too many find it easy to be simultaneously devout Mormons" while holding bigoted views (F. Ross Peterson, "'Do Not Lecture the Brethren': Stewart L. Udall's Pro-Civil Rights Stance, 1967," Journal of Mormon History 25.1 [Spring 1999], p. 273).
Udall was highly active in the civil rights area in the coming years. He helped found the Tucson League for Civil Unity in 1951, which sought to overturn the city's discriminatory laws (p. 274). As a Arizona congressman, he voted for the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights bills (p. 274). When he was named Secretary of the Interior by President Kennedy in 1961, he decided that there could be no discrimination at any facilities administered by the Department of Interior. To this end, he announced that the Washington Redskins, which had no black players on the team at the time, could not play at the new D.C. Stadium, which the federal government had recently constructed. He explained that the team was guilty of "discriminatory hiring practices." The Redskins' owner, George Marshall, fought with Udall over the announcement, but the two eventually agreed that the team could use the stadium in 1961 if Marshall would promise to draft or acquire black players by 1962 (p. 274). Udall's actions were scrutinized by many, including black organizations which questioned why Udall's religion held the position it did on the priesthood. One Georgia man questioned how Udall could take the position he did when he belonged to "the most segregated organization on earth" (p. 275).
In subsequent years, Udall sent several letters to church leaders on the issue. In a 1961 letter to Henry D. Moyle and Hugh B. Brown he wrote: "I am deeply concerned over the growing criticism of our church with regard to the issues of racial equality and the rights of minority groups." He noted: "It is my judgement that unless something is done to clarify the official position of the church these sentiments will become the subject of widespread public comment and controversy" (p. 275-76).
A response from Presidents Brown and Moyle agreed with Udall that the matter was of great importance and assured him that church leaders were carefully studying the issue of civil rights. Their letter stated that the LDS Church could do more for blacks than any other church and referred him to a First Presidency statement released in 1949 and a letter written by the First Presidency to a Mormon sociologist, Lowry Nelson, which stated that the church's position "regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality."
In the Nelson letter, the First Presidency expressed another concern: "We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency...toward breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage...but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine." Presidents Brown and Moyle added in their present letter that "we do not welcome Negroes into social affairs, because if we did, it would lead to intermarriage...and we cannot change that until the Lord gives a revelation otherwise" (p. 276).
Nearly two years later Udall wrote again to President Brown on the matter. President Brown's response struck a different tone this time. He referred Udall to a New York Times article that stated that there was a real possibility for change, while endorsing the article as giving the "overall picture rather fairly." He told Udall that the church was considering the possibility of going to Nigeria to teach interested individuals, and he added that he was "hoping for Divine guidance in decisions that may be reached" (p. 277). In the October 1963 General Conference, President Brown read a statement outlining the church's position on civil rights (p. 277). Udall watched for an announcement in the next few years but none came (p. 278).
In 1966 Udall decided to take his position public. He wrote a letter entitled "Appeal for Full Fellowship for the Negro," copies of which he sent to University of Utah professor Sterling McMurrin, his brother Morris, University of Utah administrator Boyer Jarvis, and Fawn Brodie for comment (pp. 278-79). McMurrin recommended a longer piece and urged Udall to submit his article to a national journal. Brodie suggested that Udall lower his expectations. She informed Udall that she suspected that President McKay might have acted if he had been younger, but "I know...something of his private prejudices and would be astonished to see him abandon them at this late date."
Udall chose to take another suggestion, that from a non-Mormon associate, who advised him to submit his letter to Dialogue, a new Mormon journal (p. 279). Udall did some revising and submitted the letter in late February 1967. When he learned from Dialogue that his letter would be published, Udall sent copies of his letter to the First Presidency, the two apostles from Arizona (Spencer W. Kimball and Delbert Stapley), and George Romney (p. 279-80). He also sent copies to the New York Times and the Associated Press (p. 281).
We Mormons cannot escape persistent, painful inquiries into the sources and grounds of this belief. Nor can we exculpate ourselves and our church from justified condemnation by the rationalization that we support the Constitution, believe that all men are brothers, and favor equal rights for all citizens. This issue must be resolved--and resolved not by pious moralistic platitudes but by clear and explicit pronouncements and decisions that come to grips with the imperious truths of the contemporary world. It must be resolved not because we desire to conform, or because we want to atone for an affront to the whole race. It must be resolved because we are wrong and it is past the time when we should have seen the right. A failure to act here is sure to demean our faith, damage the minds and morals of our youth, and undermine the integrity of our Christian ethic(p. 280).
He urged church leaders to act to change the policy:
Every Mormon knows that his Church teaches that the day will come when the Negro will be given full fellowship. Surely that day has come. All around us the Negro is proving his worth when accepted into the society of free men. All around us are the signs that he needs and must have a genuine brotherhood with Mormons, Catholics, Methodists, and Jews. Surely God is speaking to us now, telling us that the time is here. "The glory of God is intelligence" has long been a profound teaching. We must give it new meaning now, for the glory of intelligence is that the wise men and women of each generation dream new dreams and rise to forge broader bonds of human brotherhood. To what more noble accomplishment could we of this generation aspire? (p. 280-81)Reaction to the letter came from many corners, including those from fellow church members. One writer asked Udall why he didn't join another church and another informed him that his Mormon background did not give him the authority to run the church (p. 281). One man wrote: "If apostates like you would keep their mouths shut, there would not be any reproach brought upon the church in the minds of the uninformed or ill-informed public" (pp. 281-82) Others accused him of attempting to destroy George Romney's bid for the presidency (p. 282). A future Utah attorney general demanded, "By virtue of what Church standing does Udall presume to lecture the brethren on their doctrine?" On the other hand, a number of academics wrote letters of support (p. 282-83).
Perhaps most interesting, however, were the responses from Elders Stapley and Kimball. Elder Stapley wrote that he saw Udall's letter as a "stumbling block" to Romney or other church members who might seek national office. He informed Udall that in the church "instruction and guidance come down from above and not from below." He emphasized to Udall that "God himself placed the curse...and it is up to him and not to man to lift that curse" (p. 283).
Elder Kimball's response took a paternal tone. Among other things, he admonished Udall, "Stewart, I cannot believe it! You wouldn't presume to command your God nor to make a demand of a Prophet of God!" He suggested that Udall's motive "was the result of a sincere but ill-advised effort in behalf of the welfare of a minority" (p. 283). He expressed his admiration for Udall's accomplishments but added: "My dear Stewart, neither your eminence in secular matters nor your prominence in government circles has justified you in any such monumental presumption" (pp. 283-84). Elder Kimball wrote that his response was motivated by feelings of sorrow for Udall and signed the letter with "sincere kind wishes" (p. 284).
The letter hit the front page of the New York Times on May 19, 1967 in a story entitled, "Udall Entreats Mormons on Race."
Udall noted that he was stung by some of the responses, but he did not respond to any of the letters.
That same summer future Seventy Hugh Pinnock wrote Dialogue co-editor Eugene England regarding the letter, "The Udall controversy was interesting. I was surprised to find people becoming as explicit as they did with the article....You must (hopefully) print such opinions--especially when a government official of his stature speaks, whether it be right, wrong or indifferent" (Devery S. Anderson, "A History of Dialogue, Part One: The Early Years, 1965-1971," Dialogue 32.2 [Summer 1999], 46).
Decades later, in 1997, Udall commented regarding the priesthood revelation in 1978, "I consider President Kimball the most inspired Mormon president of this century and he did the right thing" (p. 286).