How (George) Romney Championed Civil Rights and Challenged His Church

The differences between the father and son politicians show how far the Republican Party has shifted on social issues.

The differences between the father and son politicians show how far the Republican Party has shifted on social issues.

George Romney joins NAACP Detroit president Edward Turner and other Civil Rights activists on a march through Detroit's Grosse Point suburb. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate this weekend, he not only underscored his commitment to Ryan's financial ideals -- he also sharpened the divide between his political outlook and that of his father. George Romney, the former governor of Michigan, was well known for supporting Civil Rights, not just through words but through financial policies. During his gubernatorial term, he expanded state social programs, including for programs for the poor and unemployed, and created an income tax levy.

In short, George Romney's programs resembled those of his son Mitt when he was governor of Massachusetts, but diverge nearly entirely from those advocated by his son, and his new running mate, during the current presidential campaign. A closer look at the arc leading from father to son illustrates the Republican Party's change in social outlook from the 1960s to the present.

In 1963, George Romney was able to forge a bond with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King that seems virtually inconceivable across today's political divide. The year was a pivotal one for both men. In between launching his spring campaign in Birmingham and delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington at the end of August, King led a march in Detroit in June.

Romney had just become Governor of Michigan and declared the occasion "Freedom Day in Michigan." He sent an emissary to join the crowd of about 120,000 (had the march not been on a Sunday, he likely would have been there himself). The following year, in his State of the State address, the governor said that "Michigan's most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination--in housing, public accommodations, education, administration of justice, and employment."

Romney was one of a number of moderate and liberal Republicans who strongly supported the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and, at the Republican Party convention, worked on behalf of efforts to include an anti-discrimination plank in the party platform. When the party's presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, opposed the bill, Romney refused to support Goldwater's candidacy for the presidency. When asked whether he would be campaigning on behalf of Goldwater, he said (with his characteristic directness), "You know darn well I'm not."

The irony is that George Romney championed Civil Rights at a time when his church was theologically opposed to the idea of innate equality. Romney could not bring himself to condemn his church publicly (in spite of his private views) for its policy of denying the "priesthood" to black men.

In 1964, the year King won the Nobel Peace Prize, George Romney was the most powerful Mormon in American politics and was gearing up for a presidential run in 1968. The LDS hierarchy took note and worried about his positions on civil rights. Delbert L. Stapley, a high-ranking member of the LDS (who was born the year the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was constitutional and died the year the LDS lifted its ban on African Americans in the priesthood), wrote to Romney deeply troubled. "After listening to your talk on Civil Rights, I am very much concerned. Several others have expressed the same concern to me." The letter was "personal" and not an "official Church position" but it still came on letterhead that read, "The Council of the Twelve."

Stapley directed Governor Romney to read Joseph Smith's position on "the Negro" and "abolition." Stapley commented that when he reflected on Smith's anti-black words, he thought of "what happened to the three of our nation's presidents who were very active in the Negro cause, [and] I am sobered by their demise." (John F. Kennedy had died only five months earlier.)

While Mormons could support "all the privileges, social opportunities, and participation enjoyed by the Whites," Stapley warned, they could not change the fact that the "Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro, which denied him the Priesthood." While Stapley supported some elements of the Civil Rights Bill, he could not support "full social benefits nor inter-marriage privileges with Whites, nor should the Whites be forced to accept them into restricted White areas." In conclusion, Stapley added, "Don't think I am against the Negro people, because I have several in my employ."

The letter only seemed to strengthen Romney's civil rights trajectory. While he remained steadfastly Republican and endorsed many "law and order" measures, he continued to work for many civil rights measures that conservatives today may deem anathema. During his term as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during Richard Nixon's first term from 1969 to 1972, Romney pursued policies of affordable housing and suburban desegregation with zeal, to the point of angering some white residents of Michigan who opposed his policies of encouraging the integration of lily-white suburbs.

Even so, Romney's very membership in the Mormon Church made him suspect in the eyes of many African American voters. Before Nixon became president, Romney had a shot at being the Republican presidential candidate in 1968. If he had been, he - not Mitt - would have been the first member of the LDS to be the candidate of a major party (only eight years after the first Catholic had won the White House). As Romney gained steam in 1967, Martin Luther King received a letter from Mrs. Edris Head of Wilkinson, Massachusetts. The letter began assertively: "I am writing to you because I think it is imperative that the Negro community understand what a line of bull the hierarchy of the Mormon Church is trying to feed the public in its effort to make Romney an attractive presidential candidate."

Head then went ahead to detail the wrongs of Mormonism. Blacks could not be priests. When one judge and bishop found "Negro" ancestry in his genealogy, he was demoted and forced to sit in the back of the church. Even those he had baptized had to be re-baptized. The LDS church "changes slowly," she concluded, and she could not imagine "any Negro voting for a loyal son of such a church." Head ended by calling King "the greatest living American" and "a true disciple of Gandhi and Jesus."

But just as Romney shrugged off the "curse of Ham" folklore of Stapley and other leaders of the LDS church, Martin Luther King recognized in the elder Romney a valuable political ally in the struggle, regardless of his church's policies. Their alliance seems inconceivable today, even though, since the mid-1960s, so much has changed. The LDS had a new revelation and in 1978 the almost 150 year ban on African Americans in the priesthood was lifted. The son of a white woman and an African man now sits in the White House with his wife, the great-granddaughter of slaves.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has accomplished what his father did not -- becoming the first LDS member to earn his party's presidential nomination. In some ways, the last two elections have seen the fall of some of the last of racial, religious, and gendered bars to the highest positions of power.

But even in this more tolerant era, fears about Mormonism's relationship to race and social issues are still with us. For his part, Mitt Romney seems uninterested in assuaging the public's fears. He rarely attempts to humanize his faith, opposes same-sex marriage, and champions budget proposals that would worsen income inequality and take aim at programs directed towards poor and working-class Americans. Even Mitt Romney's appearance at the NAACP, which started with obligatory polite applause, grew chilly as the presidential hopeful vowed to overturn "Obamacare."

In order to stand alongside leaders like Martin Luther King, George Romney had to weave his way through the intricate mazes of race, religion, civil rights, and church leadership issues. Should he choose to follow his father's lead, Mitt Romney's path would seem to be much smoother. But the Republican Party has itself shifted so far to the right that the landscape has changed. Historic barriers have been lifted, but with such sharp divides within politics itself, common ground seems more elusive than ever.