Ezra Taft Benson clearly wasn’t a fan of civil rights and called it a communist conspiracy. But his counselor in the First Presidency, Gordon B. Hinckley, made peace with the NAACP and helped name a state holiday in Utah after King. Dr. Matt Harris tells more about Hinckley’s effects on Benson.
Matt: For years, Dr. King’s been called a commie. Latter-day Saints of at least two generations grew up with this sort of thinking. So, what do you do about this? Well, when the Martin Luther King holiday was proposed in the early ’80’s, of course, the State of Utah just recoiled in horror. They can’t support the Martin Luther King holiday. The idea was, not only is he a communist, but he’s an adulterer and all the other things that these people had said about him. So, what happened was Utah decided they were going to call it Human Rights Day instead of Martin Luther King Day. There are a few other states that had gone that path, too.
Matt: Hinckley is privately befriending members of the NAACP. He’s doing a lot of stuff behind the scenes to really undo, quite frankly, what Elder Benson had spent much of his apostolic ministry doing: denouncing civil rights and Martin Luther King. So, President Hinckley is doing much of this stuff on his own. To finish the story here, that President Hinckley gives his support to rename the holiday after Martin Luther King. He tells the church lobbyist, he says, “Why don’t you go up to the hill and let them know that the church supports the renaming of Martin Luther King Day?” He’d been working in private with NAACP leaders. They have been pushing him hard. “Why can’t the church support this? Because you know, if the church supports this, that the legislature will fall in line.”
President Hinckley thought, “Oh my goodness, why don’t we support this? It serves no purpose in the 21st century, or as the 21st century approaches to not rename this after this iconic civil rights leader.” So, President Hinckley tells the church lobbyist, “Go up to the hill and tell them that the church supports the changing of the holiday.” It was done. And so in 2000, Utah became, I think it was like the 49th or 50th state in the union to recognize Martin Luther King holiday. What that means is that President Hinckley, yet again, is trying to modernize the church and to let Latter-day Saints know that, it’s unchristian to demean people of color and to call them a commie, and to deny them civil rights. That’s really, I think, one of, in my humble opinion, one of President Hinckley’s most enduring legacies is to really open up a new day for race relations with the church. As far as I know, because of President Hinckley, the NAACP has maintained cordial relations with the church hierarchy, because of him.
He also makes some interesting comments about Sheri Dew’s biography of President Benson.
Matt: If you look at Elder Benson’s biography that Sheri Dew did, that was published in 1987–this was during the early years of his presidency, which is really interesting if you look at this. And this is not a fault to Sheri Dew–otherwise I think it’s actually a pretty fine biography. But there’s no mention of the Birch Society, Robert Welch, none of that stuff. These guys were extremely close. And to not mention that in a biography is really extraordinary. Again, not a criticism of Sister Dew, but clearly somebody had prevailed upon her that, you know, “We’re trying to move beyond this stuff. This isn’t good for business.”
GT: So, you think she purposely was told to leave that out?
Matt: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m just speculating of course, but she had access to his papers and she knows how close they are.
Pres. Benson was a big fan of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, but Hoover wasn’t particularly fond of Benson. Harris shares Benson’s FBI files with us.
Matt: Hoover was always cordial in replies back to Benson, but either Hoover would say or his assistants would say that, “I’m busy. I can’t make it. Thank you for inviting me, Mr. Secretary to speak at BYU.” But Hoover would say “I can’t make it.” Things like that. But in private, Hoover’s writing memos saying, “I just can’t talk to the Bensons because they’re associated with the Birch Society.” The big hangup for Hoover is the whole idea with Eisenhower a commie. Hoover knew Ike. He thought Ike was an honorable man and he also knew members of his cabinet. And so that was just over the top. Yeah. If you look at The Politician, in subsequent editions, they took all the harsh stuff out. So all the communists, they’re so pretty critical of Eisenhower, but they take away, or they take out/omit the direct charges that he [Eisenhower] and his cabinet are all commies.
Matt also tells why Hoover thought Martin Luther King was a communist.
Matt: J. Edgar Hoover is the first high profile official that will float the idea that King is a commie. And the Birchers will pick up on this, Robert Welch and then by extension, Ezra Taft Benson. One of the reasons why that Hoover thinks he’s a commie is because Dr. King has two very close associates that work with him. One’s a black man named Bayard Rustin and the other one is a white guy named Sandy Levinson. Both of them had been associated with the Communist Party some two decades before they met Dr King, especially Levinson. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this was back in the Depression when 25 percent of Americans are out of work.
So, Hoover knew this. He had been wiretapping Dr. King. He knew this. He knew that Dr King didn’t like Communism. Dr King certainly had some socialist leanings. There’s no question about that. But to call him a communist is absolutely remiss. So that’s where you get that connection with communism, these two erstwhile communist members who became his close associates. He warned them, “If you have any associations that’ll ruin me in the movement.” So he made that very clear to them. What happened was that the Birchers had picked up on this communist stuff from a training school that Dr King had gone to in 1957. It’s called the Highlander Training School. It’s In Tennessee. Essentially, it’s a social justice training school. So you can go there and promote ideas of social justice, not just racial stuff but also economic and other things.
So obviously, it’s very progressive and a lot of African Americans will go there to learn about nonviolence and how to protest, you know, segregation. The late, great Rosa Parks will also go there. Well, Dr King had never been there before and they asked him to come in to give a speech, I think, on some anniversary celebration. So he goes there once. I think the evidence is pretty clearly that he was only there once. When word shows up that Dr, King is going to go there–this is 1957–there’s an undercover operative who will see Dr. King there sitting next to a communist, because some communists did go there, a few did anyway. So he’s sitting next to a communist. He had never met the man before. [The operative] takes his picture when he was sitting next to this communist and the Birchers will use this picture to smear Dr. King.
I don’t want to give it all away, but I also asked Matt what Benson would think of our current President Trump! Check out our conversation, and don’t forget to purchase Matt’s new book on Benson called Thunder from the Right. My copy arrived on Tuesday and I’m just digging into it!
What are your thoughts concerning Benson’s politics? Were you aware of Hinckley’s influence on Benson?