SALT LAKE CITY — Block letters declaring unity emblazoned across a bold orange screen welcomed thousands into the LDS Conference Center on June 1. The words declared were from the Doctrine and Covenants which says, “I say unto you be one.”
The inscription was the powerful theme for the evening, proven again and again as performers and speakers took to the stage celebrating the contributions of black Mormons.
The global event was put on by The LDS First Presidency and celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1978 church revelation that allowed black members to start receiving the priesthood, temple blessings and begin embarking on their own missionary service.
Seated beside the podium were the leaders of the church — President Russell M. Nelson and members of the Quorum of the Twelve — joined most notably by a congregation of new faces, all of African decent.
The individuals were later recognized as a committee selected by the First Presidency to help make the celebration a reality.
President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, was the first to speak at the event. In his remarks, he acknowledged the pain and suffering the church’s past restriction caused black members even after it was lifted in the 1978 revelation.
About the revelation, President Oaks said he remembers sitting on a pile of dirt and weeping openly after he received the call. He described it as a moment that will be etched forever in the minds of all LDS members who were adults at the time.
“When we consider what has happened in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in the lives of its members since 1978 we all have cause for celebration,” President Oaks said.
He emphasized speculation as to why the Lord didn’t allow blacks to enjoy the blessings of the priesthood until 1978 can only result in frustration.
Despite this, President Oaks said he has the greatest sympathy and understands why some, especially those of African ancestry, desperately want those answers.
He then recounted his own experiences trying to find answers, but President Oaks said he never felt any confirmation for any of the reasons he was given.
Oaks encouraged all church members to do their best to look forward to a better future instead.
“Our determination in this program is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revelation on the priesthood by looking forward,” President Oaks said. “As we do, we express special appreciation for our marvelous members of African descent, especially our African-American members, who have persisted in faith and faithfulness through a difficult transition period of fading prejudice.”
President Oaks also recognized the ongoing racism in the United States, some of which happens inside of the church. He called the racist practices that persist among some members a violation of what the church stands for.
President Oaks reminded these individuals that the revelation was divine instruction pleading all to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group. Not just race, but economic status, personal beliefs, religion and education.
After his remarks, the church leaders exited the stage to make way for those who would perform for the celebration.
Musical numbers were interspersed by the words of black Mormons who cried as they told the histories of early black Latter-day Saints, many of whom were pioneers.
Grammy-winner Gladys Knight sang and led the soulful choir. The choir itself was clad in colorful robes of orange, blue, yellow and green.
Dressed in white and set to a temple backdrop, the Bonner family performed a rousing number of popular church hymn “Families can be Together Forever.”
The final song was the hymn “Love One Another.” Gladys Knight led the choir and the crowd joined in singing the final notes.
At the conclusion of the evening, President Nelson spoke and said he wished they could have an encore.
“These talented performers have inspired each one of us,” he said.
Only the comprehension of God can bring powerful appreciation for “the true brotherhood of men” and “the true sisterhood of women” President Nelson said.
“That understanding inspires us with passionate desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation,” President Nelson said. “It is my prayer and blessing that I leave upon all who are listening, that we may overcome any burdens of prejudice and walk uprightly with God — and with one another — in perfect peace and equity.”