DETROIT — President Russell M. Nelson cut short his summer vacation to lock arms with a legendary civil rights activist on Sunday night and declare at the NAACP's 110th national convention that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants to become dear friends with the African American community.
Standing near the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the banks of the Detroit River, President Nelson stood with one of King's students, the Rev. Amos C. Brown, in the midst of a national conversation about racism and xenophobia.
The reverend introduced President Nelson as "a brother from another mother and a brother from another faith tradition and another race" to 3,000 people at the convention's public mass meeting in the Cobo Center near the eastern terminus of the Rosa Parks Memorial Highway.
"We are all connected, and we have a God-given responsibility to help make life better for those around us," President Nelson said. "We don't have to be alike or look alike to have love for each other. We don't even have to agree with each other to love each other. If we have any hope of reclaiming the goodwill and sense of humanity for which we yearn, it must begin with each of us, one person at a time."
The speech was a landmark. A speaking role at the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the Motor City for the president of a church that once banned black members from priesthood ordinances and temple blessings was unimagined by either the church or the NAACP 18 months ago.
"They're getting acquainted with us, and they're finding out we can help them," President Nelson said in an interview.
For the past four months, NAACP branches in Chicago and San Francisco have used materials from the church, customized for inner-city audiences, to teach personal finance principles to at-risk African Americans. The NAACP's national board of directors decided Saturday to expand the program.
"True community begins with just such relationships — with loving our neighbor, with honoring and serving each other," President Nelson told the convention. "This is the spirit behind the cooperation shared by the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
On Saturday night, the Detroit News published a joint op-ed written by Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the church's Relief Society general presidency, and Karen Boykin-Towns, vice chairwoman of the NAACP board of directors.
"By having the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak in the same city and space where King once marched, the NAACP is demonstrating once again that it stands on the side of collaboration and cooperation," the two women wrote. "And at a time when we have too many social divisions and partitions, this emerging partnership between the NAACP and the church echoes, in some small way, King's call in Cobo Hall to transform 'the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.'"
At the podium on Sunday night, President Nelson called Medgar Evers a hero. An assassin shot and killed Evers, a black World War II veteran who fought segregation in Mississippi, after an NAACP meeting in 1963.
"Medgar Evers is a true patriot. He died in the cause of freedom," President Nelson said.
He said he was humbled by the invitation to speak. He praised the NAACP for its devotion to improving lives and elevating society: "You have done much to protect and lift countless individuals. Your lofty ideals are indeed inspiring."
He shared a Book of Mormon scripture that says "all are alike unto God."
"You who are gathered here in this room strive to make this heavenly truth an earthly reality," President Nelson said. "I commend you for it. And yet we all realize that, as a society and as a country, we have not yet achieved the harmony and mutual respect that would allow every man and woman and every boy and girl to become the very best version of themselves."
He said the church has a clear goal.
"Simply stated, we strive to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation," President Nelson said.
He finished with his hope for friendship.
"As president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I pray that we may increasingly call each other dear friends. May we go forward doing our best to exemplify the two great commandments — to love God and love each of his children. Arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder, may we strive to lift our brothers and sisters everywhere, in every way we can. This world will never be the same. My dear friends, I thank you."
President Nelson met with numerous NAACP leaders on Sunday afternoon, including the association's president, Derrick Johnson.
"To have President Nelson here with us at our 110th convention means more than we can even describe," Boykin-Towns said.
She mentioned that he cut his summer vacation short to speak at the convention.
"I think it shows at the highest level of the church, its commitment to this work," she said. "And we have shown the same commitment at the highest levels of our leadership. Week by week, month by month, the relationship deepens."
The Rev. Brown called President Nelson's speech part of "a fateful evening."
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, under the leadership of President Russell M. Nelson, is here tonight to say to the NAACP, 'We are going to lock arms with you to fight racism,'" said the Rev. Brown, who added, "He's here to help us do a heart transplant for the nation."
The reverend is honored with a display in the Smithsonian Institution. He is the pastor of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church, where the majority of the joint partnership's classes were held over the past four months.
The convention will be making news for days. On Monday morning, speakers will include U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. On Wednesday, the convention will host a forum for eight Democratic presidential candidates — former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke.
The theme of the conference is, "When we fight, we win," a nod to the NAACP's 110-year history of fighting for and winning civil rights. Russell told the membership to agitate for better public policy through the electoral process.
During the convention's keynote speech Sunday night, NAACP Chairman Leon Russell thanked President Nelson for his friendship.
"Our relationship with the Latter-day Saints is new and developing," Russell said. "We may not agree on all things, but we agree we should be a friend before we need a friend."
He said the self-reliance program has drawn "rave reviews from the participants. We really look forward to seeing this program operating in our communities across this nation."