Remembering Martin Luther King

For today’s post I want to honor in some small way the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While women’s struggle for equality in the LDS church is hardly equivalent to African Americans’ struggle for civil rights, the story of Dr. King’s leadership in the civil rights movement inspires me greatly, and models the steadfast hope and courage that I hope to have as a feminist and as a person.  I feel admiration and gratitude for people who have stood for truth in the face of discrimination and prejudice, as he so bravely and eloquently did.

I re-read King’s two most famous speeches this weekend, “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and was moved to tears, not least because he was assassinated the day after delivering “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  There are things from these speeches that stand out to me as being relevant to Mormon feminism.  It’s hard to write about them without sounding hyperbolic, because the suffering caused by segregation and discrimination that King worked against was/is quantitatively and qualitatively different from the inequalities women experience in the Church.  But with that in mind, there are some similarities.

First, the bad check.  The March on Washington in 1963, King said, was in a sense to cash a check.

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”

I think that when the authors of the scriptures wrote that all are alike unto God and when the authors of the Proclimation on the Family wrote that mothers and fathers are equal partners, they signed a promissory note of gender equality in God’s church.  We do not have that yet.  If the Church is to live up to its ideals, then it must overlay the parchment on which that promissory note was written with the reality of what Mormon women have been given and see where the gaps are.  Because they’re there.

Secondly, King noted that when one part of a society is oppressed, it brings down the entire society.  In “I Have a Dream” he said, “many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”  When the Church limits the participation and contributions of over half its members, everyone loses.  Everyone loses.

Finally, in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” King recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan and relates it to the topic at hand, which was the 1968 sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis.

“And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ That’s the question before you tonight. ….  The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?'”

The question for me as a Mormon feminist is similar.  It’s not, What will happen if I speak up in Sunday School?  What will happen if I speak the truth of my experiences?  What will happen if I write letters to Church authorities?  What will happen if I ask hard questions?  The question is, what will happen if I don’t?

I know the answer to that – nothing will happen.  Nothing will change.  And it really is time that a few things did.



  1. This is an amazing post. You handled the comparison so well. I especially love your conclusion. If I don’t speak up, what will happen? It’s so true. I hope that I’m brave enough to speak up.

    Thank you so much for writing this!

  2. Great post, Emily U. I haven’t read too many of King’s speeches, but I too am moved by the excerpts you posted here. I think you are right on in finding parallels between his insights and the insights of Mormon feminists working for change.

    I know King was operating in a different time and context, but I did find his use of “black men” “white men” and “all men” a bit startling. (I am particularly sensitive to gender exclusive language.) I wondered if he considered for a second that he was leaving out women in his discourse. I say this not to take away from him and his work — I honor that completely. But it’s striking how people who can be so sensitive to injustice on one level just don’t really see it on another.

    • Caroline, I recently read Rosa Parks autobiography, and I was a bit startled by her discussion of how women were excluded from several activities at the March on Washington. The male activists, who were so ahead of their time in their approach to race relations, were not yet even thinking about gender relations in the same way. Parks is forgiving of this and talks about how these attitudes had changed a decade or two later. She said something about how today, such exclusion would not happen, and I think if Martin Luther King had lived to give speeches a few decades later, we would have enjoyed some more gender-inclusive remarks.

      Reading this perspective from Parks gives me a little hope, because she actually witnessed a complete change in her community’s perspectives toward women over the course of her lifetime. Maybe we will, too.

      • ‘ I think if Martin Luther King had lived to give speeches a few decades later, we would have enjoyed some more gender-inclusive remarks.’

        Maybe, or Maybe not, don’t forget he is of the same generation of the current GA’s , So, he too would be cut from the same cloth given that his generation of Men had same preconceived notions of what a women’s place should and shouldn’t be.

        I think given how Rosa felt about the things that were done to women of color during her generation by Men like King, the issue would have been the same for her then, as well as they are for women of color now

      • I did a lot of reading tonight, King gave an Interview to Ebony magazine, in which a young boy asked him about his opinion about the subject, Kings response is much the same as Boyd K Packers, “The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired,” King responded in the 1958 column. “You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.”

  3. Nice essay, but it gives me no idea at all what Mormon feminists want. I’ve read this blog for years, and am not much closer to understanding what your goal is. Not because I am inherently stupid, but because y’all continually dodge the question of what equality would look like, that would recognize the differences between men and women, and continue to appreciate the contributions of women.

    Statements such as this,
    “When the Church limits the participation and contributions of over half its members, everyone loses. Everyone loses.”

    make it sound like you want priesthood. So if Sister Dalton was a member of the quorum of the 12 rather than a mere YW president, you would be good with that? The world would be a better place?

    I feel that the church does a much better job of equality than the university where I am employed or the town I live in, because the church does recognize differences and appreciates the contributions of mothers. And because the principle of personal revelation and individual stewardship should prevent us from judging one another.

    Saying something twice does not make it any more true. In reality, there are costs and benefits to every way of doing things.

    • Naismith,
      If you’ve been hanging out at Mormon feminist blogs for years, you probably know very well by now that there is not one monolithic Mormon feminist agenda. Do I personally want ordination for women? You bet. Would ordination detract from women’s role as mothers? Only as much as ordination detracts from men’s role as fathers. Do the other permas here agree with my position? I am quite sure that not all do. Would the world be a better place if Dalton was in the 12? Absolutely! 100% yes. Not because I agree with her on everything, but because I want my daughter to grow up knowing that her sex does not limit her opportunities to contribute to her faith community. I want my sons to know that too.

  4. I deliberately didn’t mention specific things I’d like to see changed for two reasons. One, I want people to think about what they personally want. What really matters to them? Giving my wish-list isn’t the focus of this post. Second, and related, is not all feminists want the same things. Not everyone wants the priesthood, which I guess is why it’s hard to pin down one agenda. But you have me thinking of a future post on what I’d specifically want to see changed.

    I agree the business/academic worlds do a very poor job of recognizing the contributions of mothers.

    Caroline, the male-only language makes me cringe a bit, too. Language matters a lot to me. All I can think is that he was writing in the 50s and 60s….

  5. Women speaking up does matter, and although progress can seem terribly slow, it is making a difference. Women are now praying in Church, even giving the opening prayer in Sacrament Meeting and speaking in General Conference. Some of the brethren are showing more care with the pronouns they use in their GC talks.

    Of course, the underlying problem in the Church remains: women lack a voice in ward, stake and general Church affairs. They are placed in a position of servitude in the Church organization itself. The temple ceremony reaffirms the Church’s position that women are not a whole person but an appendage of their husbands if they are married. If they are not married, they become even more marginalized.

    I could share many, many experiences to verify my claims, but know that until the Church redefines the role of women in the Church, including allowing the Relief Society to be an independent organization, and including women on every Church committee not in an auxilliary role but as a equitable role, the Church will not model the example of the Savior, who valued women and treated them as equals. We will continue to see a pandemic of depression among women in the Church, disallusionment of women in the Church, and will lose many of our best and brightest sisters to inactivity and disfellowship.

  6. ‘The question for me as a Mormon feminist is similar. It’s not, What will happen if I speak up in Sunday School? What will happen if I speak the truth of my experiences? What will happen if I write letters to Church authorities? What will happen if I ask hard questions? The question is, what will happen if I don’t?’

    the problem that I have with this is that Mormon Feminist don’t necessarily speak , nor do they include everyone in their talks or discussions any more than the male patriarchy of the church does. Each group male/female practice what sociologist call bystander apathy. if the issue that is being addressed doesn’t apply to you, the issue gets ignored, its much easier to let the person go home feeling ignored, or to let a comment on a blog go past with addressing the issue because that’s what is easy to do.

    Mormons as a whole, both Men/Women feminist, as well as non feminist, do not do confrontation well, nor do they respect people who think differently than they do.

    • I accidentally hit the submit button before I was finished.
      I have to add, I find this behavior among Mormons Male/Female, feminist, non feminist to be truly disturbing. Mostly, because, they will sit quietly by and let someone attack you personally, emotionally and spiritually at church and on these blogs then expect you to support not only the Church, but its leadership whatever agenda it is that the group(feminist/non feminist) is trying to push.

  7. I love this. I’m a big fan of how Dr. King crafted his speeches, and I’m amazed that in this world of information overload we still remember what he said 45 years ago.

    The Good Samaritan question bears more thinking about: King posed the reverse question as “What will happen to him?” That’s what I’m concerned about right now: I live in a wonderful ward, I have a strong Mormon feminist sisterhood, and though I’m very uncomfortable with some of the current Church policies, I think the problem is policy, not doctrine. I think (well, right at this moment) that my daughters and my son will grow up knowing their worth and not feeling that they are less important or more important simply because of their gender. (May I not tempt fate by saying all is well in Zion!) But what about the children who read the Friend and believe that God wants them to cover their shoulders for the sake of modesty? What about the young people who heard Sister Dalton’s talk and now are afraid that “lobbying for rights” (doesn’t that have the ring of “bad check” to it!) is somehow against their religion?

    Naismith and Diane, you both say that we talk a lot and don’t do anything, and that we only care about our own agenda. I respectfully and vehemently disagree. If there is anything that Mormon feminists do agree on, it is that we want to see everyone as equal within the Church as we are before the Lord.

    Maybe we don’t have a great orator to give motivating speeches, but we have collective wisdom in the blog posts we read and write, and in the words spoken at many Mormon feminist retreats around the country. We have practical, everyday wisdom in Dana Haight Cattani’s article on participating in PEC meetings and speaking up for ourselves. And groups such as WAVE and All Enlisted write handbooks and organize our own humble protests. You may write them off as symbolic, but then so was the march on Washington.

    • Libby,

      “Naismith and Diane, you both say that we talk a lot and don’t do anything, and that we only care about our own agenda.”

      I can’t speak for Naismith, but, I can speak for myself, I think you misunderstood my point, which is that Mormon Feminist, Like Male Patriarchy can’t nor do they speak for everyone with in the same group, As April pointed out, Even Rosa Parks stated that Martin Luther King left many, if not all Women out of his negotiations when it came to the civil rights movement.

      Additionally, I also never said don’t do anything, they do, but, only for a specific group within the same circle. For, better, or worse when someone has disagreed with Mormon feminist, we have been all but lambasted, if not ridiculed, told to get off the bus and all but ignored for stating what we believe, which by and in itself is counter intuitive to the movement isn’t it? This won’t change until Mormon Feminist can even begin to acknowledge that on some levels they behave just as rudely as some of the Chicken male Patriarchy that they write about.

      And, I also disagree with you that most of the problems in the church today have to deal with policy rather doctrine. I believe it goes much deeper, its policy, doctrine, culture and the tendency of people (precisely because all religion is man made) to use the Bible and the rhetoric of God to help substantiate any policy they want to see put forth

      • Diane, I think the post and subsequent comments made it perfectly clear that Mormon feminists (at least this group of Mormon feminists) understand that they do not speak for everyone.

        That said, it seems to me that you’re unhappy about two things. One, that Mormon feminists don’t tolerate disagreement, and two, they are just plain rude about it. To the extent that anyone has disagreed with you in a way that insults you personally, or dismisses you as not worthy of engagement, or hurts your feelings in some way, I really am sorry. That’s not OK, and when people are rude it is a reflection of who THEY are, not who YOU are.

        However, as a Mormon feminist, in order to be true to my ideals I have a responsibility to disagree when ideas are presented that I feel violate the fundamental equality of all human beings. I advocate tolerance, but I cannot tolerate (that is, allow to exist without contradiction) falsehoods about what to me are universal truths. I can disagree respectfully, but you bet I’m going to disagree. Being tolerant does not mean that you agree with everything; that is impossible.

        I’m not saying you are doing this, but at times I’ve heard conservatives smugly criticize feminists for not being tolerant, when tolerance is supposed to be one of our ideals. They think they have caught us in a damning self-contradiction. But if someone demands the technical “dictionary” definition of tolerance which I suppose is never to contradict anything, then so be it. It admit to being intolerant of certain things. But it is nothing but a cheap rhetorical trick to say feminists are hypocrites for being intolerant of sexism. No one can hold a principle to be true and simultaneously be technically tolerant of everything.

    • Um, actually that’s not what I said. I said that it was hard for me to understand what Mormon feminism is, and how you define equality.

      Most of what I see seems to imply that if women were treated the same as men, all would be great. I would like to see equality that treats men and women differently, because it respects the differences between them. I also do not want to lose sight of the vast contributions that women have made through the generations. I see nursing a baby as equally valuable as earning a paycheck.

      And of course one does not have to be a feminist to speak up at ward councils or whatever. I recently wrote my Primary presidency asking for a sharing time on the founding of RS, since that detail did not make it into the class lessons on church history. A lot of non-feminist women and non-feminist women’s groups are involved in issues of domestic violence, educational opportunities, and so on. And we are happy to work with feminists when our interests overlap. But where I live, the feminists are very clear about what their view of equality is, and it doesn’t mesh with my complementarian viewpoint.

      Whereas as apparently MoFeminists are bit looser. Which makes for a big tent, but isn’t particular informative for someone trying to figure out the goals.

  8. Emily,

    I think you and I basically agree in principle, but, just to be clear, I didn’t say feminist are hypocrites for not being tolerant of sexism, just that sometimes Feminist engage people, both Male/Female with the same level of contempt that the Male leadership of the church does and that is not okay. I use to think that maybe, I was reading too much into some of the statements that I was reading, but, I have recently had my computer fixed and updated so that now I can listen to pod cast and I hear the snarkiness in some of the comments being made. And just so that we are clear, I don’t think being respectful in dialogue means that one has to agree with any comments or that one has to be tolerant of one position of another you just need to come to the table with an open mind and put away preconceived notions about what you think the other person is saying. Isn’t this the message of Dr King

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