Kirby: It's about time LDS Church had an African general authority

This is an archived article that was published on in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The LDS Church reached a milestone last week when we ordained our first black African general authority. Elder Joseph W. Sitati of Nairobi, Kenya, was admitted to the First Quorum of Seventy.

During General Conference, Sitati was presented for a sustaining vote of the entire church membership, including those of us watching from home with a bag of Doritos. It was such a momentous occasion that I thought a second vote was required.

"All those who can sustain the idea that this sort of thing was about dang time, please manifest by ..."

Sorry. That was irreverent, I know. It's just that I feel personally vindicated. Years ago, I constantly had to defend against intractable church policy a deeply held personal belief -- specifically that Beth Martin in fourth period math was hot.

Beth was also African-American. For a Mormon boy, dating black girls back then was discouraged because -- should the unconscionable happen and we got married-- our male children wouldn't be able to hold the priesthood.

Fellow Mormons weren't the only ones troubled by interracial dating. When word got out about my interest in Beth, her brother and several of his friends punched me goofy after school.

That was California. Growing up Mormon during the black priesthood ban wasn't as big of a problem in Utah where nearly everyone was Flock of Seagulls white.

It was tougher outside of Zion, especially in such places where a Mormon guy might find himself the only Blowfish in a crowd of Hooties.

It happened to me. In the 70s, public opinion regarding the church's policy toward blacks had reached a crisis. There were fiery editorials, angry demonstrations, and lots of name-calling. In the middle of it all, I was hauled off to the Army.

The first day of basic training was straight out of the movie "Stripes." Our platoon gathered for a little personal orientation. We took turns introducing ourselves and where we came from, after which Drill Sgt. Valentine paired us up as "bunk buddies."

Bunk buddies watched out for each other. They trained, ate, slept, pulled guard duty and suffered horribly together. If one bunk buddy screwed up, both paid for it.

When it was my turn, Valentine's eyes actually glowed when he heard the word "Utah." Not only was our drill sergeant extremely African-American, but also a follower of current events. He immediately demanded to know whether I was Mormon.

I confessed that I was. However, before I could add that I wasn't a very good one, Valentine had already shoved me next to a kid from Mississippi.

My new mandatory best friend possessed the general size, hue and temperament of a Cape buffalo. Clearly unhappy with the arrangement, he spent the next several days referring to me as something that was almost certainly a mortal sin.

Cunningham hated me and I was afraid of him. Fortunately, Valentine managed to beat that out of both of us. Within a week, my bunk buddy and I were on speaking terms. By the second, we had each other's backs. Toward the end, our respective colors had run together and become Army green.

There's a lesson here somewhere. If so, maybe we're starting to get it.

Robert Kirby can be reached at