Ezra Taft Benson was a sharp critic of the civil rights movement and called it a communist conspiracy. Why was that? Dr. Matt Harris details the red scare, and why Benson was so opposed to both communism and civil rights.
Matt: Elder Benson thinks that Martin Luther King–this is the Birch view, of course, but Elder Benson, following the Birch line thinking that Dr King is a communist agent. That somehow if you push for racial equality, you also want economic equality and that makes you a socialist and a communist. So Elder Benson is furious with Hugh B. Brown’s general conference talk, where the Church is on record as supporting civil rights. Now keep in mind what that means. Brown never said that we favor the civil rights stuff going on in Congress right now. Nor do we favor particular legislation in the State of Utah. There was nothing specific about it. He would write that too, to other Latter-day Saints who wrote him letters. “Does that mean we support the Civil Rights Act of 1963, that John F Kennedy is pushing through?” He’d write back, “We don’t support any particular policy. I just want you to know that we do support civil rights as a general principle.” So clearly, there’s some hedging with him.
We will also talk about his European Mission.
Matt: …after the whole Harding speech on the floor of the Congress, it created a buzz storm. And the brethren and President McKay [decide] “We’ve got to get Benson out of the country. We’ve got to purify his blood.” That’s what Joseph Fielding Smith says in a private letter. We’ve got to get him out of the country and purify his blood. What he meant by that is purify his blood of politics, of Birch. In 1963, ironically enough, the same month that Hugh B. Brown is giving that civil rights statement in conference, Elder Benson’s going to get summoned into the First Presidency’s office to be told that he’s going to be sent to Germany to preside over the European mission.
Ezra Taft Benson wanted to run for U.S. President. Dr. Matt Harris describes a few attempts by Benson to run for POTUS, and how Church leaders finally put an end to Benson’s political aspirations.
Matt: The Birchers will create this secret organization called the Committee of 1776. It’s run by Birchers. It’s got Birch footprints all over it, but “we can’t reveal ourselves as Birchers because it’s too controversial.” And they say this in their board meeting. “If we say it’s us, then people will be turned off by it. So do not mention that Robert Welch or anybody is behind this.” But it’s really mostly Birchers doing this.
So they draft Benson as their presidential candidate and they draft a man named Strom Thurmond, who was a Dixiecrat in the 1940’s, and split off from the Democratic Party because he was so pro-segregation and didn’t like the civil rights tack that President Harry Truman was taking.
And, without going into the details, the ticket fizzles. It doesn’t raise enough money. Thurman never had the buy-in, to be honest, that Benson had. Benson was alarmed by it and just giddy about it. President McKay gives the green light for him to do this, by the way, which is interesting, over the protest, of Hugh Brown and some other leaders.
Elder Benson and his son Reed fly out to Birmingham and they have a three hour meeting with George Wallace and Benson tells Robert Welch, “He’s a great guy. We have a lot in common.” So, Benson tells Governor Wallace, “I need to get the support of President McKay. I can’t do this unilaterally.” President McKay knew that there was some pushback when he gave the green light to run with Strom Thurmond. Some of the Apostles told him, including Hugh Brown, “This is stupid. Don’t do this.”
McKay is an old Scottish man. He had a little temper. “Don’t tell me what to do.” The brethren were sensitive to that, including Hugh B. Brown. So he goes back to Salt Lake and tells President McKay in a highly confidential meeting, “They want me to be the presidential candidate with Wallace.” This is on the Independent ticket because there’s a Republican Mormon who might wrap up the Republican nomination. So we’ve got two high profile Mormons running for the same office.
GT: This is George Romney, right?
Matt: George Romney, right. What really muddies the water is there are a number of brethren who support George Romney and not Benson. That’s another challenging issue.
GT: And Marion G. Romney is in the quorum. How is he related to George?
Matt: They’re cousins. So, we’ve got that dynamic going on, too. Romney has gotten priesthood blessings from President McKay, from other people about running and they tell him, “You’re going to run and we support you.” President McKay supports George Romney and tells him this.
If you were’t aware, George Romney is the father of Mitt Romney. Harris tells how LDS leaders ended Benson’s political ambitions.
Byt the way, Harris’ book on Benson is now available for purchase on Amazon! See https://amzn.to/2EHTklK
What are your thoughts on Benson’s views of the Civil Rights movement and communism? Would you have voted for Benson? Were you aware he wanted to run with Strom Thurmond and George Wallace?