On Friday, March 8, 1968, I was among a group of 155 newly called and set apart missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who were eating lunch at the Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building). During our meal, an African American waiter who had been serving us all week, asked if we would give him our attention for a few minutes. That man’s name was Monroe Hamilton Fleming Jr.
He explained that he was speaking to us by invitation of the “Brethren.” For years, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had invited him to address new missionaries every week.
A Remarkable Spiritual Odyssey
Brother Fleming was born August 25, 1896, in Scoby, Mississippi, where his father served as a Methodist minister. In his early twenties, Monroe began meeting with missionaries and exploring the basic beliefs, programs, and people of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. When his father was made aware of Monroe’s spiritual investigations, he was not upset or resentful. Instead, his father counselled: “My boy, continue to seek after the truth. If anything I teach you be false, may you throw it aside and go on to richer knowledge and deeper truth than I have ever known” (Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aidan Gray, Standing on the Promises: A Trilogy of Historical Novels about Black Mormon Pioneers: Book Three: The Last Mile of the Way, [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 2003; from an audiotape Monroe Fleming made around 1962], 188-190).
In 1928, Monroe moved to Salt Lake City for work. This is where he met his wife, and they raised their children. In 1945, Monroe joined the staff at the Hotel Utah, where he worked for nearly 30 years as a waiter, coat checker, and busboy until he retired in 1974.
The Monroe family was active in one of the city’s Methodist churches, but they also became involved in community choir and concert productions held at the Tabernacle. These activities brought him into contact with members who invited him to attend various programs of the Church of Jesus Christ. He also read the Book of Mormon and seriously considered being baptized, but friends and family persuaded him not to follow through with this plan at that time.
One day in the dining area on the top floor of the Hotel Utah, Monroe initiated a conversation with J. Rueben Clark Jr., of the First Presidency. President Clark took the time to answer Monroe’s questions and discussed why men of black African descent were not allowed ordination to the priesthood and black men or women could not participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances. President Clark encouraged Monroe to contact the local bishop responsible for the neighborhood ward where he lived. Monroe phoned his bishop and was baptized later that same evening on November 20, 1956.
In addressing missionaries, Monroe explained that even though missionaries in 1968 were not actively encouraged to proselyte among individuals or families of black African descent, he yearned and prayed for such a day. He concluded by testifying that he knew that we were members of Christ’s “only true and living church” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). As we left the Hotel Utah, Monroe Hamilton Fleming stood near the doorway greeting 155 missionaries and handing out business cards with the following scripture excerpt: “[God] inviteth … all to come unto him and partake of his goodness, and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33).
A Day of Rejoicing Comes
Ten years and three months later—Friday, June 9, 1978—news agencies reported that in a June 8, 1978 letter to all general and local priesthood officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “[God] has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom including the blessings of the temple” (Official Declaration 2).
On hearing this news, Monroe Fleming said: ““I shouted for joy! … This seems to be the thing the Lord has prepared. The gates are down. It is up to me to build my life up so that I will be worthy to enter” (“Responses of Joy Evoked by 1978 Revelation on Priesthood,” Church News, Jun. 9, 1978 [updated Jun. 7, 2018], 1). Now nearly 82, Monroe was among the first African Americans to receive all priesthood and temple blessings of the restored Church of Jesus Christ.
When I first heard the news from another member, I also shouted for joy! I rushed home to hear Walter Cronkite confirm the First Presidency’s June 8th letter. Inspired by Monroe Fleming’s testimony, I also looked forward to contributions faithful black members would add to fulfilling King Benjamin’s prophesy—'The time shall come when the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue, and people” (Mosiah 3:20)
My initial joy and knowledge were expanded when the prophetic voice of President N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, read the June 8, 1978 letter at the 148th Semiannual General Conference on September 30, 1978. Next, President Tanner asked for a sustaining vote recognizing Spencer W. Kimball as the prophet, seer and revelator, and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Official Declaration 2 was added to the Doctrine and Covenants for all to reflect upon, learn from, and study.
Learning to Be One
The December 6-12 outline in Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Doctrine and Covenants 2021 encourages us to consider this activity, “As you read Official Declaration 2, ponder how you have learned to trust in the Lord even when you don’t have a perfect understanding.” For me, my soul is immediately calmed by the opening reference in Official Declaration 2 to 2 Nephi 26:33: “The book of Mormon teaches ‘all are alike unto God’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female.’” This is the key truth Monroe Fleming taught me 53 years ago.
The December 6-12 Come, Follow Me also suggests these insightful and forthcoming resources for further study concerning race and ongoing revelation in the Church of Jesus Christ:
“Learning about the faith of black members of the Church could be inspiring to you. Here are some of their accounts, found at history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org:
“Jane Elizabeth Manning James” (Church History Topics)
“In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions” (story of Green Flake)
“You Have Come at Last” (story of Anthony Obinna)
“Break the Soil of Bitterness” (story of Julia Mavimbela)
“I Will Take It in Faith” (story of George Rickford)
See also “Witnessing the Faithfulness,” Revelations in Context, 332–41;
Gospel Topics, “Race and the Priesthood,” topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org;
Ahmad Corbitt, “A Personal Essay on Race and the Priesthood,” parts 1-4, history;
By studying these inspirational testimonies and historical reviews, we can help stand against racist actions and attitudes. As President Russel M. Nelson recently taught: “I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children” (“Let God Prevail,” Ensign, Nov. 2020, 94).