After a tumultuous night of prayer, Gray still felt a call to join the faith and went on to help found the Genesis Group, an official church support group for African American Mormons, which he believes paved the way for the 1978 lifting of the ban on blacks in the priesthood. It was an anguishing period that coincided with Romney’s full embrace of his faith and his rise within it.
The mere mention of Romney and the church’s ban on blacks is fraught. If he gets the nomination, the nation’s first Mormon presidential nominee will challenge the first black president. Romney, the son of former Michigan governor George Romney, who had a strong record of civil rights activism, bears no responsibility for the doctrines of his church. But in the prolonged Mormon debate over whether the ban resulted from divine doctrine or inherited historical racism, Romney appears to have embraced the prevailing view: The ban was the word of God and thus unalterable without divine intervention.
Gray, who still chokes up discussing the day the church lifted the ban, wants to know more about Romney’s perspective on the ban and how he struggled with it.
“It’s a marvelous question,” said Gray. “But there is only one person who can answer it.”
The Romney campaign declined to expound upon the candidate’s thinking at the time.
A time of upheaval
As the son of George Romney, the Michigan governor and a leading voice for civil rights within the Republican Party, Mitt was well regarded by the few black students at the prestigious Cranbrook School outside Detroit.
“I was the only African American in my class,” said Sidney Barthwell Jr., a Romney classmate and later a classmate of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School. “I knew about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that they didn’t allow blacks to ascend to the priesthood. I knew that then. But George Romney was a tremendous social liberal and a tremendous supporter of the social rights movement.”
Barthwell, now a magistrate in Michigan, said he never got any sense that Mitt Romney saw African Americans as anything but equals and that the Mormon church’s ban never arose as an issue at school. But the subject became unavoidable as Romney returned from his mission in France and enrolled at Brigham Young University in 1969. The priesthood ban contributed to unprecedented volatility on campus.