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The story behind last week’s meeting between the LDS Church and the NAACP

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SALT LAKE CITY — Whatever else they might have imagined doing with their lives when they were growing up in the 1960s, they couldn’t have dreamed up this: More than a half-century later, their friendship would facilitate the unlikely bringing together of these two acronyms — LDS and NAACP.

If Wil Colom, a black kid in Ripley, Mississippi, and Steve Hill, a white kid in Portland, Oregon, had a to-do list, uniting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wasn’t on it.

Colom was busy diving into whites-only swimming pools and boarding buses as a freedom rider in the Deep South. Across the country, Hill was wearing a tie-dyed shirt and trying to run like Prefontaine while preparing for a Mormon mission once he turned 19.

Colom belonged to a race of people fighting long and hard for their civil rights; Hill belonged to a church that denied black people the priesthood. Common ground for them did not exist.

But times and cultures do change.

In 1978, the LDS Church, reversing a policy that had lasted for over a century, announced that worthy black males could now hold the priesthood.

By this point, Colom and Hill were established in their legal careers. Colom, a graduate of the Antioch College School of Law in Washington, D.C., was about to become the youngest lawyer in history to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Hill, a graduate of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, joined a Salt Lake firm and became part of a team that won a historic judgment against Microsoft.

Hill and Colom became acquainted when they were introduced by Jim Parkinson, a BYU law school classmate of Hill’s who met Colom when they served together as officers in a national trial lawyers association.

The three became friends and business partners. They traveled to the African nation of Tanzania to open hotels there and organize humanitarian aid projects.

On one of their African trips, in 2010, Colom invited a longtime Mississippi friend of his, Derrick Johnson, to join them. Johnson was head of the Mississippi conference of the NAACP in Jackson. His office was in the building that had once been home to Medgar Evers, the civil rights legend who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in his driveway in 1963 when he was field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP.

In 2013, not long after that trip to Tanzania, the LDS Church published on its website, lds.org, an essay that articulated its position on race.

“Today, the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else,” the essay said.

In the summer of 2017, following the clash between white supremacist groups and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, the church made clearer still its position on race when the following appeared on lds.org:

“It has been called to our attention that there are some among the various pro-white and white supremacy communities who assert that the church is neutral toward or in support of their views. Nothing could be further from the truth. White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.”

Two other events occurred in 2017 that pushed the LDS/NAACP needle forward. One involved the local LDS stake in Jackson, Mississippi, volunteering to help refurbish the NAACP headquarters building as a service project.

The effort to help out for no other reason than to be helpful, and at such an important civil rights site to boot, so moved the NAACP leaders in Mississippi that when it came time for their state convention, they decided to give an award of commendation to the LDS Church.

The occasion prompted this loose exchange between the audience and the stage:

Wait. What is LDS?

That’s the Mormons

Oh, we know who they are …

… Wait a minute, don’t they discriminate?

Not any more. That was a long time ago. They refurbished the Medgar Evers office.

Big ovation!

Also that summer, Johnson left his position as head of the Mississippi conference of the NAACP when he was elected president of the nationwide NAACP.

He appointed Colom as his special assistant.

One of Johnson and Colom’s first plans to help move the organization forward was to change the relationship between the NAACP and the LDS Church – from nonexistent to existent.

To get that started, Colom, a card-carrying member of the NAACP since he was a Freedom Rider, called Hill, a card-carrying member of the LDS Church for just as long.

“Steve,” he said, “do you know anyone we can talk to?”

Hill contacted people he knew in church leadership, who contacted church officials, who contacted Johnson to tell him the church was more than willing to talk.

Last Thursday in Salt Lake City, on the 64th anniversary of the seminal Brown v. Board of Education ruling that legally ended segregation in public schools and barely three weeks from the 40th anniversary of blacks getting the LDS priesthood, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, his special assistant Wil Colom and four other NAACP leaders met with LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors in the First Presidency, Henry B. Eyring and Dallin H. Oaks, where they all committed to working together to make the world a better place.

“It’s so gratifying, so wonderful. We view one another as friends now,” Colom said after the meeting. “What an amazing change I’ve seen just in my lifetime.”

Then he put his arm around his buddy Steve Hill, who was waiting for him just outside the door.