Mormon Church leader tells NAACP gathering: 'We strive to build bridges'

Collaboration, Russell Nelson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a Sunday address in Detroit will highlight the similarities between his church and the black community. 

"Simply stated, we strive to build bridges of cooperation, not walls of segregation," Nelson said during the speech before the 110th annual NAACP Convention. 

Nelson's address before hundreds gathered in Cobo Center during the second day of the convention marks the first time a president of the Mormon Church has addressed the annual convention. Russell said the two groups have a common goal of eliminating prejudice of any kind.  

"We too believe that we are brothers and sisters, all part of the same divine family," he said.

The two organizations have increasingly been working together, Sunday signaling the latest sign of a burgeoning collaboration. In May 2018, NAACP Chairman Leon Russell traveled to Salt Lake City to meet with leaders of the church and discuss future plans. Local leaders initiated a project to restore the historic NAACP field office in Mississippi "occupied by civil rights martyr Medgar Evers," said an opinion piece published Saturday by The Detroit News. Other collaborations followed: free workshops on personal finance, partnering with Brighman Young University's law school for pro bono minor legal issues.

Nelson said he looks forward to working with the NAACP even more in the future.

"As president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I pray that we may increasingly call each other 'dear friends.' "

Amos C. Brown, president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, thanked Nelson for the church recognizing its role in racism in the United States. 

"We should applaud (NAACP) President Johnson and Chairman Russell, who responded to this problem, and his faith community, when they had the courage to say, 'We have unfortunately been complicit in an evil of racism in this nation, but unlike certain persons in America, we are humble enough to say that we are sorry,' " Brown said.

The religion barred blacks from the lay priesthood until 1978. That ban was rooted in the belief that black skin was a curse, and lingers as one of the most sensitive topics in the religion's history.

Scholars estimate that black people make up about 3% of the 6.6 million church members in the U.S.

The comments follow remarks earlier Sunday, the second day of the annual convention, when NAACP leaders called on members to have courage as they fight hatred.

“My sisters and brothers, we gather here in Detroit for serious business because right now we are in an existential war for the soul of the nation,” said the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III, social activist and senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

The war, Haynes said, "will determine if America will continue it's descent that is being propelled by white nationalism to the graveyard of once great empires. ... Here's the good news, that even though we are at war for the soul of this nation ... when we fight, we win."

Frederick Douglass Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

Haynes made his comments during a prayer breakfast Sunday while drawing upon the convention's theme: “When We Fight, We Win.” 

The convention through Wednesday brings members together with elected officials, organizers, faith and young leaders, and entertainers for workshops and discussions on topics including police brutality, racism, voter suppression and mental health in the black community.

Haynes noted how boxer Muhammad Ali was considered a champion even after losing the title of heavy weight champion. 

"NAACP, you don't have to have the title to be a champion," Haynes said. "You don't have to be in the oval office to be a champion. When we fight we win because we are the champion."

Gordon Jackson, a member of the Biloxi, Mississippi, NAACP branch said Haynes' speech was energizing. 

"I think it was important about the courage that we need to exhibit not only in the NAACP, but within our community overall so that we can move our community forward despite what we're seeing in our country right now with elements of, kind of like a mild form of xenophobia building up in our community," Jackson said.

Jackson said President Donald Trump has set off a resentment that has existed about the progress of people of color and women.

"Frederick Haynes sensed that and he is joining hands with us in calling for the NAACP to fight," he said. "I thought it was very timely and I thought it was a good way to kick off the convention. People are going to be energized."

Earlier, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP Detroit Branch, noted the importance of preparing for the presidential election in 2020.

"We have to change the direction of the nation," Anthony said. "We have to get what's happening right now at 1600 (Pennsylvania Avenue). ... We've got to get that out because we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in high places."

Democratic presidential candidates are expected to address the convention during a forum Wednesday.

Anthony noted that Detroit is where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first "I have a Dream" speech, where the United Auto Workers was founded and where the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, made her home.

"You're in the right place at the right time for the right situation, the right cause ... and the right direction and that's to move us in another direction," he said.

Artist Stina Aleah, of Elyria, paints a mural for DevaCurl, a hair care company in New York City, Sunday afternoon at Cobo Center.

The prayer breakfast also served as a time for reflection of former contributors to the NAACP cause. Among those remembered were the late U.S. Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith, who died April 28 at the age of 96; the Rev. Julius Hope, a baptist minister and past president of the Brunswick, Georgia, NAACP Branch who died Oct. 24 at the age of 86; and the late Sally Carroll, a past president of the Newark Branch of the NAACP, who died April 1 at the age of 97. 

More than 10,000 attendees are expected during the convention which runs through Wednesday at Cobo Center.

Among the convention attendees were Robert Harris of Seattle, Washington. Harris, a delegate for the Port Orchard Branch, said he came to the conference looking for ways to boost branch membership and voter registration.

"We're looking to expand our membership and make sure that the message is out that it's not just for colored people," he said. "It's for everyone, try to help everyone. People are being receptive of that."

This is the front of the Sankofa 400 T-shirt at the Shop Detroit Market Place at the NAACP Annual Convention at Cobo Center, Sunday.

Annett James, president of the Boulder County NAACP branch, bought a T-shirt in the vendor area during her visit in support of a black-owned business. She said she came to the convention to learn about all of the work the NAACP is accomplishing.

"The NAACP mission is so broad," she said. "It's all encompassing. It's really good to be able to go and hone in on, say civic engagement, what's going to be the issue. The last time it was Get out the Vote. ... You get ways and strategies into how to implement the game changers that the NAACP sets forth."

Annett James, left, of Boulder, Colorado, buys a Sankofa 400 T-shirt from Afrique Nana employee Troy Hawkins, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The T-shirt represents breaking free of oppression.

Nana Mainoo-Yeboah, owner of Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based African clothing shop, Afrique Nana, has sold her merchandise at NAACP conventions off and on for 20 years. Her participation extends beyond a business opportunity.

"It's a big concern for me how the leaders aren't concentrating their effort on the black man," she said.

Issues at the forefront of Mainoo-Yeboah’s mind are black-on-black crime and truancy rates.

"I'm here to sell my wares, but I'm also here to ask questions," she said. "I'm very concerned. ... It breaks my heart. I want to see what can we do."

The Associated Press contributed.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN