SALT LAKE CITY — The presidents of the LDS Church and the NAACP stood together Thursday for the first time and called for an end to prejudice and greater racial and ethnic harmony during a historic news conference at the Church Administration Building near Temple Square.
Black Mormons who attended the event held back tears and hailed the moment as a major step forward.
The two organizations explored how their members can collaborate in areas like education and humanitarian work during a meeting directly before the news conference, said President Russell M. Nelson, the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Today, in unity with such capable and impressive leaders as the national officials of the NAACP," President Nelson said, "we are impressed to call on people of this nation, and indeed, the entire world, to demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect."
Johnson said Thursday's LDS-NAACP summit — the first time leaders of the church and the civil rights group have met officially — was historic for both organizations. He said the NAACP admired and shared President Nelson's optimism and looked forward to working with a new partner.
"(The NAACP is) clear that it is our job to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves," Johnson said. "And we do so through an advocacy voice, but now with a partner who seeks to pursue harmony and civility within our community. I am proud to stand here today, to open up a dialogue, to seek ways of common interest, to work toward a higher pursuit. This is a great opportunity. Thank you for this moment."
A founding member of the Genesis Group for African-American Mormons, organized by LDS apostles in 1971, described the event as a watershed.
"I had no idea such a day would come, but come it did, and it's indicative of the need for all of us to come together and be one," Darius Gray said. "The challenges of life are too significant to stay in separate corners and not work together. Today marks a milestone. Others will follow."
Gray said the summit was more significant because it came so close to the official 40th-anniversary celebration on June 1 of the church's 1978 revelation, which again extended the priesthood to all worthy males.
"Without that event of 40 years ago, today likely would not have occurred," he said. "Step by step, prayer by prayer, honest effort by honest effort. Thanks be to God."
NAACP leadership is holding its quarterly national board meetings in Salt Lake City for the first time.
President Nelson stood arm-in-arm with the Rev. Amos C. Brown, a member of the NAACP's national board, at the start of the news conference. His Twitter account later reflected what he said at the beginning of his comments: "It was my pleasure today to meet with national officials of the NAACP to affirm the fundamental doctrine — and heartfelt conviction — of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that all people are God’s precious children and are therefore brothers and sisters."
President Nelson said the church and NAACP began to explore how to work together to lift "our brothers and sisters who need our help, just as the Savior, Jesus Christ, would do."
"Together we invite all people, organizations and governments to work with greater civility," he added, "eliminating prejudice of all kinds and focusing more on the many areas and interests that we all have in common. As we lead our people to work cooperatively, we will all achieve the respect, regard and blessings that God seeks for all of his children."
Cathy Stokes sat on the front row during the news conference and fought back tears as President Nelson quoted Jesus Christ's command to "be one."
"(President Nelson) didn't tiptoe around it or put escape clauses for those not fully converted to it," she said. "He put it directly, and I thank God for that. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How appropriate to come out of the mouth of a prophet, and from the NAACP, our oldest champion of civil rights, a cornerstone of black people striving for equity in American society."
She hoped the joint news conference would allow Mormons and others to move forward "free from biases and hatreds that have separated us for so long."
President Nelson and his two counselors in the church's First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring, hosted the meeting near the Salt Lake Temple at the Church Administration Building, where President Nelson has his office.
"We had a wonderful conversation with the First Presidency," said NAACP chairman Leon Russell, who characterized the meeting as productive. "We immediately found we could communicate very well. It was a delightful meeting and we focused on issues like education, poverty and hunger and, to some extent, disaster relief, where there's great commonality."
He said the meeting began with a discussion about the need for civility in public discourse.
"We can be two organizations that model that," Russell said.
Johnson complimented the LDS Church for what he called good faith efforts to help people around the world.
"Like the Latter-day Saints," he said, "we believe all people, organizations and government representatives should come together to work through how to secure peace and happiness for all God’s children. Unitedly, we call on all people to work in greater harmony, civility and respect for the beliefs of others to achieve this supreme and universal goal."
Johnson and Russell were joined in the meeting by NAACP national board members Rev. Amos C. Brown and Rev. Theresa A. Dear.
The NAACP national board is holding its meetings at the Salt Lake Marriott. The meetings will continue through Saturday, with a Friday evening reception hosted by the NAACP Salt Lake branch.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles conducted the news conference.
Earlier Thursday, many on social media expressed frustration over a fabricated web page that mimicked the church's official newsroom website and posted a falsified story about the church and the NAACP. Neither organization commented on the hoax, which was picked up by some media.
Don Harwell, recently released after 14 years as president of the Genesis Group, attended the news conference. He said he never thought he'd see the two organizations that both represent him come together during his lifetime.
"It's humbling," he said. "It really is, because for so long we wanted this to happen. My heart is overwhelmed with the generosity and love the First Presidency has shown toward the Genesis Group and the black members of the church. This is an opportunity for us to work together and share how we think things should go, remembering they are the First Presidency and they get revelation from the Lord. I really think the direction will be to the benefit of all."
What might that future look like?
"Like it should," Harwell said. "Like it should have all along."