In the early 1970s, BYU opened up a brand-new law school. I was surprised to learn that the American Bar Association considered not accrediting the university due to the racial ban in the Church. Dr. Matt Harris describes some of these little-known issues that new BYU president and lawyer Dallin Oaks dealt with this potentially fatal blow to the law school.
Matt: There is new law school popping up and the American Bar Association, they send a letter to Dallin H. Oaks, this brand-new president. He’s a young man. He’s just left his tenured position at the University of Chicago where he went to school and then subsequently joined their law faculty. BYU recruited him to replace Wilkinson. So in 1971, Dallin Oaks comes on board and Oaks receives this letter. “Oh my gosh, they’re not going to accredit us. They’re threatening to not accredit us because of the church’s policy towards blacks.”
GT: On the law school.
Matt: On the law school. They just got it up and running.
GT: So let me make sure. So, 68-69 we’re having these civil rights problems with the entire school in general.
GT: We hire some black faculty. So that gets them off their back.
GT: But now 1971 comes and the Bar Association is threatening to take away the accreditation.
Matt: Yes, and a year earlier, Nixon, the IRS with Bob Jones is out. This is all going on at the same time.
How much did these protests affect the apostles?
Matt: President Kimball said in 1975. Let me get this right. If I don’t lift the ban, my successor won’t do it, nor will my successor’s successor. Of course, he’s talking about Benson and Mark Petersen. So that was President Kimball, saying very clearly if I don’t do this, they won’t. Harold Lee was just intractable. He refused to lift the ban and Joseph Fielding Smith, too. It’s interesting how people evolve because Elder Kimball, I don’t want to give you the sense that he’s a racial progressive. One of the things that his son talks about is my father shared some of the same prejudicial views towards black people that other people of his generation did. Clearly, that’s easy to believe if you realize that we’re all products of our environment, right? But what’s unique about Kimball is not that he had prejudicial views, it’s how he evolved and that he saw that it was the right thing to do to further the advance of the church. That’s why I admire him so much is that he knew that there were obstacles. David O. McKay had the same obstacles, different personalities in the Twelve, but the same obstacles. I think I can make a strong argument that President McKay might have lifted the ban in the 1950s had it not been for some of the hardliners there. What’s different between President McKay and President Kimball, is that Kimball recognize that it was worth fighting for, it was worth going to bat for. I don’t want to say that McKay didn’t think it wasn’t worth it. But Kimball spent a lot of time nurturing relationships with the personalities that he had to work with the most, which is McConkie. I’m not sure about Petersen, how much of the one on one, but I do know with Elder McConkie, he spent extensive time with him working him through these issues. We talked about how McConkie gone to Brazil several times in the weeks and days leading up to the revelation. So when they went to the temple in June of 1978, it wasn’t like the manuals, say, “Oh, I just had a revelation one day.” No, this is something they knew they we’re going to change when they got there. I’m not trying to take away from their revelatory experience and the inspiration of it all. But there’s no doubt in my mind that President Kimball knew the ban was going to go that day and I’m quite certain that the others knew that it was going to go, too. It was just a matter of being unified and probably feeling that last-minute inspiration that they felt they needed to have.
What are your thoughts on Matt’s research on the ban?