The Civil Rights Movement in Utah

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

During this time, the people of the United States struggled over the extension of civil rights to millions who had suffered for scores of years as second-class citizens. Dissatisfaction over segregated and inferior schools, colleges, hotels, restaurants, and recreation facilities forced questions of rights and equity into the courts in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Under the pacifistic leadership of the Reverend Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the violent leadership of the Black Panther Party and other groups, civil rights advocates took to the streets, restaurants, buses, and churches to protest segregation and discrimination.

In Utah, as in most of the West, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and others suffered formal discrimination, but most anti-minority sentiment appeared more insidiously cloaked in the dressing gown of the protection of private property. With the exception of an 1898 state law that prohibited marriage between a man and woman of different races, city ordinances that barred African Americans from swimming in municipal pools, and laws that prohibited Native Americans from voting, most discrimination in Utah resulted from restrictive real estate covenants, policies of private businesses, and patterns of residential living.

The majority of Utah’s African American people lived in central Salt Lake City west of Second West, and in Ogden west of Washington Boulevard and South of Twenty-fifth Street, and many worked in domestic and personal service and for the railroads. Excluded informally—but nevertheless definitely—from full association in the majority Euro-American culture, African Americans provided many services for their own community. Black newspapers such as the Broad Ax and the Utah Plain Dealer appeared first in the 1890s, as did churches such as the African Methodist Episcopal and Calvary Baptist. African Americans formed lodges of the Odd Fellows and Elks, and women organized such groups as the Ladies Civic and Study Club, the Camellia Arts and Crafts Club, and the Nimble Thimble Club. Drawn by jazz with its roots in African culture, Blacks frequented nightclubs, including the Dixie Land, the Jazz Bo, the Porters and Waiters Club, and the Hi Marine, to dance and listen to music.

Anti-black prejudice appeared in most neighborhoods as regularly as the paperboy. At the height of Germany’s Nazi power in 1939, Sheldon Brewster (a Salt Lake City realtor and later Democratic speaker of the Utah House of Representatives) gathered a thousand signatures on a petition asking the Salt Lake City commission to designate a section of the city as an African American ghetto. After the commission refused to pass such blatantly racist legislation, Brewster tried to induce Blacks to voluntarily agree to sell their homes and buy into his ghetto plan. African Americans and their supporters marched on the state capitol in protest, but many real estate companies tried to achieve Brewster’s goal informally by inserting “whites only” covenants in contracts until such restrictions became illegal in 1948. Nevertheless, municipal and private swimming pools, including Ogden’s Lorin Farr Park and Farmington’s Lagoon, remained segregated and off-limits to African Americans until after World War II.

African American entertainers and celebrities who visited Utah had difficulty finding hotel rooms, and Blacks who bought tickets to hear them perform or who went to watch motion pictures found themselves listening and watching from the balconies of concert halls, theaters, and resorts. The French African singer Lillian Yavanti stayed with acquaintances in Salt Lake City because she could find no hotel that would take her in. Salt Lake City hotels refused accommodations to Metropolitan Opera contralto Marian Anderson in 1937. In 1938, the Hotel Utah rented her a room only after she agreed to ride up in the freight elevator. In 1948 and 1951, conditions had changed so much that when Anderson returned, the Hotel Utah accommodated her without question. Moreover, she sang to a standing-room-only audience at the LDS Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1948.

Similar discrimination and special accommodation greeted other visitors, though celebrities often managed to circumvent the restrictions. The Hotel Newhouse made an exception to its anti-Black policy for Harry Belafonte because of his fame. Vibraharpist Lionel Hampton and jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald suffered from similar prejudice.

The pre-1978 policy of the LDS church that prohibited African Americans from holding the priesthood and entering the temple provided many Mormons with a theological justification for anti-Black prejudice. In the absence of an immediate change in policy, Hugh Brown, a counselor in the First Presidency, spoke out strongly against discrimination, and the church leadership under President David O McKay extended priesthood privileges to Fijians and Filipinio Negritos. These actions plus public opposition to discrimination by prominent Mormon laypeople such as Sterling McMurrin and Lowry Nelson may help to explain that on the average, Mormons held attitudes about African Americans similar to most other white Americans. Moreover, when LDS church President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation in 1978 that gave the priesthood to all worthy men and opened the temple to all worthy members, even the theological rationale disappeared. Nevertheless, even with the new revelation, discrimination in Utah remained at about the same level as in surrounding states.

By the late 1940s, some Progressive businessmen, including Robert E. Freed, had begun to break Utah’s color barriers. Opening Lagoon’s swimming pool and ballroom to African Americans, Freed also integrated Salt Lake City’s Rainbow Rendezvous ballroom. Following Freed’s lead, most businesses dropped their discriminatory practices and cities integrated their municipal swimming pools.

At about the same time as nearby western states, and at a rate faster than most southern states, conservative Utah legislators passed laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, and employment more slowly than the national Congress. As part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination in schools, colleges, employment, and public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to extend the franchise to all people.

Unlike the southern states, Utahns had never legally segregated their schools, colleges, or universities. Most children attended neighborhood elementary and junior high schools. Schools were open to all but were partially segregated as much by economic status as by race through residential living patterns. Before 1954, when Ogden opened Ben Lomond High on the secondary level, no Utah city except Salt Lake had more than one high school. Thus, patterns of residential living had not segregated most high schools. Moreover, the predominantly Euro-American students at Ogden High elected African Americans Shirley and Carl Kinsey to student-body offices in the early 1950s. During the 1970s, most cities with racial and economic minorities began to try to eliminate informal economic and racial segregation by balancing the demographic makeup of student bodies.