Why Mitt Romney's NAACP Speech Got A Standing Ovation

naacp standing ovation

Photo: (Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images)

Amid all the reports and punditry about Mitt Romney’s hostile reception at the NAACP conference Wednesday, the standing ovation that the Republican presidential candidate received at the end of his speech has been largely overlooked.This unexpected audience reaction was triggered by Romney’s closing remarks about his admiration for his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, and the role he played in the civil rights movement despite criticism from his party and his church.

Here’s the excerpt:

For every one of us a particular person comes to mind, someone who set a standard of conduct and made us better by their example.  For me, that man is my father, George Romney.

It wasn’t just that my Dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did.  It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit – though he did those things, too.  

More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white.  He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.

I’m grateful to him for so many things, and above all for the knowledge of God, whose ways are not always our ways, but whose justice is certain and whose mercy endures forever.  

This nod to the Romney family’s Mormon faith is a veiled allusion to largely unspoken tensions that underscored Romney’s appearance at the NAACP conference — and the audience’s respectful ovation illustrates why the speech was actually a very significant moment in Romney’s presidential campaign.

For most of its history, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormon Church, excluded African American men from the “priesthood,” an ordination given to most married Mormon men in good standing with the church. (The LDS church does not have a full-time salaried clergy, so virtually all Mormon heads-of-households are considered priests).

Brigham Young, the second head of the Mormon Church, taught that all black people were under the “curse of Cain,” ordaining that “[A]ny man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ…”

The Church followed this mandate for more than 100 years, resisting numerous entreaties to end its exclusionary practices during the civil rights movement, including several by the NAACP. The position was finally reversed in 1978, when the Church declared that it would “extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.” (Interestingly, the shift is widely believed to have been driven by the problem of who would lead the Church’s expansion into Brazil and other ethnically diverse countries, rather than by concerns about racial equality.)

Today, only about 3% of the roughly 6.1 million Mormons in the U.S. identify as black.

Mitt Romney’s assumption of a leadership role in Boston’s Mormon Church coincides with the church’s shift in in its stance toward accepting African Americans into the priesthood, and there is little reason to believe that Romney opposed the change. In fact, he has called the reversal “one of the most emotional and happy days of my life,” and said he broke into tears when he heard the news of the change. 

The Church’s racial issues have nevertheless been a political liability for Romney since his first run for office in 1994, when Ted Kennedy, Romney’s opponent in the Massachusetts Senate, demanded he state state his position on the church’s former policy of excluding African Americans.

Since his failed Senate bid, Romney has been relatively tight-lipped about his religion. But while Romney’s faith has been mostly off-limits during the 2012 presidential race, questions about his Mormonism remain a sensitive issue for his campaign.

In light of this fraught history, Romney’s appearance at the NAACP conference has been praised as a bold appeal to a civil rights group that is, in large part, suspicious of his church and strongly supportive of his Democratic opponent.

But as the first Mormon presidential candidate of a major party challenging the country’s first black president, Romney had to accept the NAACP’s invitation — or risk opening himself up to uncomfortable questions about his willingness to accept the black community. To that end, Romney’s NAACP speech was actually quite significant – and surprisingly successful. While his message was forcefully rejected, the farewell standing ovation suggests that his gesture was, at the very least, appreciated.

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