But Romney’s choice to march was about far more than Trump. The Republican senator from Utah was continuing a family tradition of strongly supporting civil rights, even when it was politically disadvantageous. Romney’s father, George, then the governor of Michigan, marched in support of racial equality in 1963. He was in the early stages of planning his own presidential run, and his actions stood in stark contrast to a Republican Party that was increasingly reaching out to white Southerners on issues of race. Later, President Richard Nixon even fired George Romney as secretary of Housing and Urban Development because of his zeal for enforcing open housing laws.
While Mitt Romney proudly tweeted a photo of his father’s march in advance of his own and there are parallels between the two men, there is a major difference: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which they were both prominent and committed members, has changed its position on racial equality dramatically in the intervening five decades. George Romney not only went against his political party, but his church, while Mitt Romney did not. This reflects how even one of the most conservative religions in America has evolved on race in the past half-century.
By the time George Romney marched for civil rights, church leaders had softened their official opposition to the civil rights movement. But they remained adamant that too much equality risked problematic racial mixing. Several prominent officials even accused protesters like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of being communist pawns.
In 1964, after Romney became known for his support of civil rights measures, Delbert L. Stapley, an apostle (one of the 15 leaders of the faith), sent him a letter that expressed displeasure for the governor’s political views. “I am very much concerned,” Stapley wrote, that Romney was diverging from divine truths concerning racial status. He even noted that the presidents who were “very active in the Negro cause,” including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and had gone “contrary to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” had suffered the “somber” fate of assassination.
Romney, however, not only ignored this warning, but also became even more dedicated to the cause. As governor, he forged a relationship with the NAACP and earned respect from civil rights leaders; as an eventual presidential candidate, he gained enough steam to be considered the Republican front-runner for 1968. His campaign fell apart early in the primary season thanks to comments about the Vietnam War, and Nixon ended up the nominee.
But it was Stapley, not Romney, who reflected the position of the Mormon leadership. In fact, another apostle, Ezra Taft Benson, became the preferred vice presidential candidate for the Independent Party ticket that year headed by former Alabama governor George Wallace, who broke from the Democratic Party over its support of civil rights.
Benson was a natural choice for Wallace, as he had spent the previous decade delivering urgent speeches attacking civil rights, and he was held in high esteem among the right-wing part of the GOP. Adding Benson to the ticket would lend the campaign credibility, bipartisan balance and potentially expand its geographic reach. Only a personal refusal from LDS President David O. McKay stopped Benson from signing up. McKay told Benson he could not spare the apostle from ecclesiastical duties, but in reality, he worried Benson’s politics could sour the church’s reputation in a moment of national debate.
But even with both Romney and Benson out of the presidential election, the church could not avoid the debates over race that inflamed America in the 1960s. Minutes from leadership meetings reveal a deep fear that the protests could turn violent, and leadership increased security at church offices and temples. At one point, they staved off an NAACP-sponsored march around Temple Square in Salt Lake City during their semiannual general conference only by promising to publicly read a statement supporting a moderate form of civil rights. At another point, they decided to halt missionary efforts in Africa out of fear the efforts would raise questions at home.
The competing influences of the George Romneys of the faith, who urged the church to evolve in its views, as well as the strident conservatism of the Ezra Taft Bensons in leadership, who worked hard to maintain the status quo, led to a public stalemate on how the church should move forward on civil rights issues.
But as Americans became increasingly tolerant of racial equality, church members grew more vocal in opposition to existing policies. What’s more, international growth was continually stymied by the church’s stance. Finally, in 1978, the Mormon Church removed its racial restrictions, which opened the door to a drastic increase in black membership.
Reckoning with these historical ties has remained a difficult challenge. The most direct LDS statements rejecting racism have often come in response to immediate crises, not from an enduring commitment to the issue. A 2012 statement condemned “all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church” in response to a Brigham Young University professor who expressed racist theology, and another statement in 2017 explicitly denounced “white supremacy” after a member of the faith was originally scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally of white nationalists and white supremacists.
Indeed, there is plenty of work still left to be done, as the church remains one of the most racially homogenous in America. The current church president’s comments on the George Floyd protests reflected this mixed progress. They were as concerned with looting as racial violence in the wake of nationwide demonstrations after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.
But there are signs of change — although they are found more among the laity than the church leadership. Increasing numbers of Mormons are willing to speak out against the systemic racism that dominates society. Most strikingly this month, in Atlanta, where church authorities denied the right to participate in civil rights protests in 1968, members were formally encouraged to participate in an interfaith march. At the rally, a black member of the LDS Church was seen holding a sign that read, “Mormons Against Racism.” It was a welcome sight, especially when considering the history that preceded it.
Also, on Monday, the Mormon Church released a joint statement with the NAACP calling for more systemic change, a collaboration that would have been unimaginable in the 1960s, though the NAACP quickly followed up by saying they hope to see the church support its words with actions.
When George Romney marched for racial equality in 1963, he did so without much support from fellow LDS members; when Mitt Romney marched in 2020, he reflected a broader consensus. Once again, change on the ground is forcing the hand of the LDS leadership. It remains an open question, however, as to how the Mormon tradition will evolve in the next 50 years.