SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in the fight for black voting rights in the 1960s; now, he’s fighting for more inclusion of minorities on Utah’s political stage.
Rev. France Davis, 72, has spent his life paving the way for young black men and women to make a difference in Utah, a state that is more than 90 percent white, according to the U.S. Census. Davis believes there needs to be more diversity of race and religion in the Utah legislature, and that because there is not, “institutionalized racism” is allowed to continue in Utah.
“Here in Utah it’s more hidden, it’s more under the surface, it’s more like people have their heads stuck in the sand and don’t want to talk about the issue,” said Davis, who will speak at the University of Utah’s commencement ceremony in May on unity. “In Georgia, people talk about it all the time, they say ‘you African-Americans, you’re over here; if you’re white, you’re over here. But in Utah…they don’t say that they just treat you that way,”
“Racism is institutionalized…and that’s what the real problem is here in a place like Utah,” said Davis.
The Georgia native, who was once kicked off of Brigham Young University’s campus in 1972 for wearing an afro, says not much has changed in terms of race-relations in Utah. Most people are just ignorant of the issues, he said. Davis, who witnessed the overturning of the ban on blacks having the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1978, said the majority white and Mormon legislature must join minorities in enacting change.
“When people who are different are in the room, then the conversation is also different, and that’s what we need to bring about change,” Davis said.
Debates about the Confederate Flag in Utah illustrate the divide, he said. Many who don the symbol of the Confederate South in Utah on clothing and on cars simply don’t understand the pain it causes for minorities, particularly African-Americans who were alive during the era of separate-but-equal.
“They have no sense of the effect and the impact of things like the Confederate Flag on people of color…and thus it’s ignored,” said Davis.
Davis travels around the state hoping to educate citizens on black culture in Utah and adds a powerful voice to an ever-growing chorus of voices in Utah calling for more diversity in government. His 70 percent black congregation, which began in the late 19th century with only African-Americans in its makeup, now consists of whites (10 percent), Native Americans (10 percent) and Hispanics (10 percent).
He said he would like to see that kind of diversity representing the people.
“All of us are in the boat together, and all of us have to realize that unless we work together, we are not gonna solve the problems of the minority. So the majority has to come alongside the minority and then work together to solve the issues,” Davis said.
He said only then will minorities not feel disenfranchised at the voting booth and in other aspects of Utah’s political life. Davis, whose congregation is working to re-engage young people in religion, is also working to engage youth in politics.
Close to retirement age, Davis said he’s aware the fight for equal treatment under the law in Utah and around the nation likely won’t happen in his lifetime. But he’s grateful for the progress that has been made and hopes to see more.
Inside his church, Davis said, congregants “keep hope alive.”