Ruffin Bridgeforth, an African American Latter-day Saint born in Louisiana in 1924—at the height of Ku Klux Klan activity—had already had hard conversations with his son. On one Sunday afternoon, his son approached him. “Dad,” he said, “those kids back in the alley are smoking and doing everything and they’re passing the sacrament. I don’t do any of those things, so how come I can’t pass it?”
Ruffin answered, “I don’t know why we can’t hold priesthood. There’s a lot of speculation. But I do know the Lord loves you, and I want you to know that too. We’re climbing a hill right now, and it’s a steep one. But we can’t stop climbing. We can’t stop halfway. All these things will be for our good. All these things will give us experience. Just wait. God knows it all.”
His son then announced that someone had said that “the Negro” was cursed.
“Who told you that?” Ruffin asked.
“Anyone who does a thing like that isn’t a good member of the Church. Don’t you know? The Lord loves you as well as he does anybody. Don’t you feel that love?”
“Not from them.”
“Son, those people who lack love, they’re the losers because they’re not keeping the commandments of our Heavenly Father—and they’re not receiving the blessings. The Lord will weigh their hearts, so you don’t have to worry about it. Don’t you feel love from the Lord?”
Darius Gray, who was a reporter for Salt Lake City news station KSL, was known and loved by the Brethren, as was Ruffin Bridgeforth. Gray had participated in the broadcast of President David O. McKay’s 1970 funeral, concluding spontaneously with the words, “Out of the ages he came, and into the ages he goes: David Oman McKay, ninth prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
President McKay was succeeded by President Joseph Fielding Smith. Of course, nothing had changed for Black Latter-day Saints, and the issues were pressing.
In 1971, Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr met in a small room in the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, and knelt in prayer. As Gray puts it, “Back then, having three black Mormons together was like having a quorum. There weren’t many of us.” In fact, in that year, there were only three or four hundred Latter-day Saints of African descent throughout the world. There are now around 700,000.
Bridgeforth, Gray, and Orr counseled together on the issues they were facing: How could church members of African descent hold on to their children, and particularly to their sons, with the priesthood restriction in place?
Finally, Gray approached President Smith with their concerns. President Smith assigned three junior apostles, Elders Hinckley, Monson, and Packer, to meet with the three black men. Their meetings began on the morning of June 8, 1971—a date which would take on greater significance in 1978, when the priesthood revelation (actually received on June first) was made public.
Leitha Orr, wife of Eugene Orr, wrote this in her journal:
These six men [the three Apostles and the three black men] met nearly every two weeks for four months discussing, planning, and learning to respect and love each other. As my husband said, ‘I have cried on Elder Hinckley’s shoulders, and he has cried on mine. Elder Packer has cried on my shoulder and I on his. Elder Monson and I have cried together. We have truly learned to love and respect each other.” It also includes a simple prophecy: Soon our men will have the priesthood and then we can progress spiritually and be able to go to the temple. I pray we will all endure until the end.
In an unscheduled meeting, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley said to all present: “My friends, after all our meetings, I hope we can call each other friends. I need to tell you that we have taken your questions to the other members of the Twelve. The Brethren have entered into prayer. As a result, we feel led to establish a support organization for the Negroes of this Church. We have called Brother Bridgeforth to be its president. He’s asked that you, Brother Gray, serve as his first counselor, and you, Brother Orr, as his second. Ruffin has already accepted the calling.”[ii]
Both Gene Orr and Darius Gray accepted callings as well. On October 19th, the Genesis Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized. Mary Lucile Bankhead, a descendant of vanguard pioneer and “colored servant” Green Flake, was the Relief Society president. Elder Monson made these comments at the organization of the group:
I stand before you tonight in a chapel that is just five blocks from where I was born and where I spent the first thirty years of my life, and I feel it a privilege to participate in this historic occasion. We are meeting in the Third Ward, one of the original pioneer wards. Among those early pioneers were members of the race now constituted as the Genesis Group. It’s been a long trek, but the promised land is here. I testify to you that our Father is pleased with what has transpired. Your theme could be that of an old Sunday school hymn: ‘Do not weary on the way.’ And your counsel, ‘Be not weary in well doing, for you are laying the foundation of a great work. Out of that which is small proceedeth that which is great. I once heard a definition of a pioneer as one who goes before, showing others the way to follow. As I have met with Brothers Bridgeforth, Gray, and Orr, I have been in the presence of true pioneers, who in their attitudes, in their testimonies of the truth, in their willingness to serve, in their demonstrated love of the gospel, are going before, showing others the way to follow. I salute these three pioneers tonight. And each of you is a pioneer in the Genesis Group. This is a great beginning.[iii]
The Genesis group conducted unifying activities.