The Civil Rights Movement in the United States heightened awareness of the contradictions in the Church's policy. In 1964, in response to questions, Joseph Fielding Smith justified withholding priesthood by referring to rights he claimed black members already had. His mimeographed sheet argued that negroes should be given complete equality with all other citizens in respect to legal rights, education, and employment; the Church would defend these privileges, he said. Nevertheless, "it is not the authorities of the Church who have placed a restriction on [the Negro] regarding the holding of the Priesthood. It was not the Prophet Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young. It was the Lord! If a Negro desires to join the Church we will give him all the encouragement that we can, but we cannot promise him that he will receive the Priesthood." Outside of that, he said, blacks should enjoy all rights of membership with no hint of segregation. Mormons were condemned during the Civil Rights era because of this explanation. The national news derided the priesthood policy. Brigham Young University athletes were threatened and endured tomato throwing, bomb scares, and heckling; athletic games were cancelled and boycotted. As one rival black athlete said in 1968, "You've got to understand how we feel. Those Mormons say we're the mark of Cain and that we can't go to heaven because we're black. Man, I just don't want to associate with those people in any way." Sports Illustrated noted in 1970 that a BYU basketball team did not know whether to expect "a man-to-man defense, a zone, or a grenade." By the early 1970s, the former rationalization was dropped, and no justification whatsoever was offered.
The policy caused pain for all and especially black members. In 1942, some Relief Society sisters in Washington, D.C., objected to sitting beside "two colored sisters who are apparently faithful members of the Church." The ward appealed to the First Presidency who advised: "We feel sure that if the colored sisters were discretely approached, they would be happy to sit at one side in the rear or somewhere where they would not wound the sensibilities of the complaining sisters." Katherine Warran, a black woman, looked up the Church in the telephone directory and began to attend. "I investigated the church for about three years. They were prejudiced in that church. They didn't want any blacks. There weren't any blacks there. Yet I felt good when I would go. I kept going, even though nobody said anything to me."
Darius Gray, a black man who joined the church in 1964, found out the night before his baptism that he could not hold the priesthood. "I had a testimony of the gospel, but I was also a proud, black man." He was set to call off the event, but instead, "took it to God that night" and received "a succinct answer" that this was to be his faith. He joined a church with an exclusive priesthood policy, right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Gray believes that blacks are descended from the biblical Ham and traces his line back to Melchizedek, for whom the higher priesthood is named. As Gray says, "I'm not saying that Melchizedek was black, but I am saying he was hanging with the brothers."
Many white members were pained by the practice of withholding the priesthood. A Stanford University student, converted to the Church, said, "The hardest thing for me in joining the church was the blacks and the priesthood. I'd been raised to be very much devoted to the idea the black people were as good as anybody. Here was this church that practiced institutional racism. Here I was joining this church. I knew it was the right thing to do and I wanted to do it, but it was hard." Some Mormons openly apostatized. Some became closet apostates. Many, embarrassed by the situation, felt the exclusionary practice was indefensible, but continued to be active in the Church. Others spoke out. English professor Eugene England, a branch president in Minnesota, in the 1970s, said that explaining priesthood denial to his parishioners was "in its way, the heaviest cross I have to bear." England pointed to the difficulties for whites as well as blacks. "When God asks us, as we believe He does, not to give blacks of African descent the priesthood at this time, He asks us to sacrifice not only our political and social ideals and the understanding and good will of our colleagues and friends, but seems to ask us to sacrifice the very essence of His own teachings-the divine potential of all His children, the higher ethical vision of possible exaltation for all people, concepts that are among the most attractive and vital features of our faith." England suggested that racist white members must repent to change the policy.
Another thoughtful response came from Arthur Henry King, a learned white convert to Mormonism in 1966 who had worked for the British government in Africa. His "difficulty" with priesthood denial required intense reflection. "I realized when I came to terms with myself that I had knowledge from my own experience that showed that the Church's teaching in this respect was not wrong: the blacks were not ready to come in and the Church membership was not ready to have them in. At the same time, I thought, and I realized that other people in the Church also thought, that this did not absolve us from a deep and profound social responsibility to that race. God had not cursed them, but humankind had cursed them; for a curse is not an arbitrary thing-it is a kind of acknowledgment of what is. And the nightmare of the blacks has been the most terrible of the human nightmares."
Priesthood denial points up the difficulties, as well as the advantages, of a church open to revelation. Practices can be changed in the twinkling of an eye by a brief fiat from the current prophet. The disadvantage is that the fiat must be received. In this case, despite the denial, there were promises of full blessings at some time. Brigham Young said that blacks would get the priesthood in this life. Hugh B. Brown, a General Authority, said in 1969, that blacks would eventually be given priesthood "in the not too distant future."
Near the end of the 1970s, the Church seemed a fortress defending itself against national disfavor. Leaders explained that only a revelation could change the policy. Experienced observers believed that the Church policy would never change under attack. As the Civil Rights Movement peaked and diminished, the Church stood firm. But as missionaries preached the gospel to a wider world population, the practice of barring anyone with Negro blood from the priesthood raised problems of definition.