Latter-day Saint Life

How a civil rights activist became a member of the Church


As Latter-day Saints prepare to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Pioneer Day on July 24th this year, LDS Living recognizes that in addition to the sacrifices of the early pioneers, there are many modern-day pioneers across the globe who have build the Church in their nations or in their families. This story originally ran in 2019 but is being republished as a way to celebrate the story of a true pioneer.

In 1967, Isaac Thomas walked onto the Missouri Valley College campus on fraternity pledge night. As one of only 32 black students at the school, he stood out starkly, but, being an outgoing young man fresh from an all-black high school, Thomas didn’t think anything of it. He had never come face to face with the violence and hatred racism breeds—until that night. 

“They threw urine and feces on us from the roof,” Thomas recalls. “I don't know what I was expecting. … I had not been that confronted with racism before. I knew it was around, cause I could feel it. I knew that my grandparents experienced it. I knew how they felt, but I also knew how my parents and grandparents raised me.”

After that moment, a fire lit inside Thomas, compelling him to join the civil rights movement. “I marched; I've been hosed; I've been spit on; I've been called some things I didn't know I could be called,” Thomas says. “I sat through riots. I’ve done the whole nine yards in that respect. I did all those things for my children and so that segregation would end. The sad part to me is that now we willfully segregate ourselves and say it is OK.”

As a protestor, Thomas learned how to not retaliate while being beaten, screamed at, spit on, and threatened—to stand for something larger than himself. “I tried my best to follow Martin Luther King. That changed the day he was assassinated,” Thomas says. “I became very angry.”

One day, when Thomas was speaking to his grandfather, he said in frustration, “They are going to kill us anyway, might as well kill some of them.”

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That’s when Thomas learned a lesson he would carry with him for the rest of his life. His grandfather responded, “I don't know what you are going to kill them for. … You might be killing some of your relatives.” Thomas sat in stunned disbelief.

His grandfather then pulled out a four-generation family picture. There, in stark contrast, stood one white face among all the rest. “Great-grandpa Sweat is as white as the driven snow,” Thomas says. “I went, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

His grandpa responded, “You need to straighten up. You need to start seeing people for who they are.”

Thomas’ heritage taught him a profound lesson about the connectedness of the human family—one that deepened later in life when he learned about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Listen to Isaac Thomas' story below:

Learning About Latter-day Saints

After attending Missouri Valley College, Thomas joined the Air Force, and it was during basic training in July 1972 that he first learned about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “There was one young man in our flight basic training group that was [a Latter-day Saint], but our drill instructor hated him,” Thomas recalls. While the other airmen joked and drank and smoked, this young man was always gone for some church meeting or another—priesthood Sunday mornings, Sunday School in the afternoon, sacrament at night, weekday activities, etc.

“I was the only member in that basic training unit that that kid gave a Joseph Smith pamphlet to,” Thomas recalls. “Why? I have no idea. He just said, ‘You might be interested in this; read this.’ Till this day I see his face; I can't remember his name. He has no idea what came out of that.”

One day, Thomas was relaxing on the bed and pulled out the Joseph Smith pamphlet, figuring it would be a nice change from military material. “The drill instructor came back in and saw me reading it. He yelled at me. Yelled,” Thomas recalls. After using some choice words, the drill instructor asked, “What are you reading that pamphlet for? Don't you know about Mormons?” It was the first time Thomas had heard mention of the word, but his drill instructor vehemently continued to explain that "Mormons" were liars, alcoholics, racists, bigots, and virtually everything else unpleasant.

“So I put the pamphlet down and didn't think anything more about it,” Thomas says. “Then I got sent to my next training site in San Angelo, Texas, and there was this one kid, Steve. This was in the ‘70s, so we had big hair. We had platform shoes. We had bell bottoms. And this kid was doing the jitterbug and had a missionary haircut. He was just so straight. And I used to look at him and think, ‘What planet is this kid from? I need to take him under my wing.’”

It was during this time, when Thomas was “drinking, smoking, doping, partying, and doing my thing,” that people kept inviting him to religious revivals. This was nothing new to Thomas. “My grandparents were ministers—my father's father and my mother's mother. So I have had church, trust me, in abundance,” Thomas says. But these invitations all came to a head one day while Thomas was at the chow hall and asked the lunch lady for some steak. “She said, ‘Come to our revival,’” Thomas says. “Three minutes went on, and she would not give me my food. People in the line were yelling and cursing at me to move the line.”

Eventually, the stalemate was called off and Thomas received his steak, but he also walked away swearing that “the next person who is going to talk to me about church is going to get cussed from Genesis to Revelation. I'm done with this church thing.”

Finding the Church

Just a few days later, Steve pulled up in his jeep to a hungry and hungover Thomas and asked if he wanted a ride to the chow hall. As soon as Thomas got in the jeep, Steve asked, “How would you like to go to church with me tonight?” Thomas recalls, “I called that man everything but a child of God. He kept driving like he didn't hear a word I said. All the sudden, I heard someone say, ‘OK, I'll go.’ It had to be me because I was the only one in the jeep. But I forgot to ask which church I was going to.”

As they pulled up to the meetinghouse, Thomas, who had forgotten his glasses, squinted at the sign, trying to read it. “So I’m squinting and reading ‘The Church of Jesus . . .’ Oh, it's a Mormon church,” Thomas says. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Isaac. How did you get yourself into this fix? It's a Ku Klux Klan meeting and you are going to be the burnt offering.’”

Remembering what his drill instructor had told him about members of the Church, Thomas grew anxious, thinking of ways he could get out of this awful predicament. He decided to wait for everyone else to go inside so he could escape and walk back to the base. His plan quickly backfired. “No one moved until I did,” Thomas says. “I am walking into this chapel going, ‘Please, let there be another person of color in here.’ There was not. They had a mahogany foyer, and I thought I would try to stand against it and maybe I would blend in. Maybe they won't notice me. Instead, everybody walked by and went, ‘Oh, it's so nice to have you here. Welcome.’ The chapel door was shut, and I thought, ‘I am going to walk in here and there’ll be the grand dragon with hood and sheet and life is done.’ I was so angry and frustrated with myself for being in that fix.”

But when Thomas walked into the chapel, there were no hooded figures and no sacrificial offerings. There were only messages about keeping the commandments, enduring to the end, and obtaining eternal life.

After sacrament, Thomas’s fellow airmen took him to another meeting. “I [thought], ‘OK, they are taking me out back. Here comes the crosses and the rope, and I was scared. They said, ‘This is our baptismal font,’ and I said, ‘This is probably where you dump the bodies.’”

When the night ended, Thomas thought, “I got out of there by the skin of my teeth, not coming back.” He continues, “They asked me, ‘How would you like to come to stake conference? I thought, ‘Burning at the stake? No. I'm not going. Not going at all.’ The same kid a couple weeks later asked me to go to a party with him. I figured wine, women, song, and dance? Hey, I can do that.”

But this party turned out to be far different from what Thomas anticipated. With his “fro in place” and bell bottoms flared, Thomas discovered this party had no music and no dancing. The only drinks were root beer floats. Partway through the “party,” the father of the girl hosting the event came out, shook Thomas’s hand, and talked with him for a half an hour. “He was glowing,” Thomas recalls.

The man invited Thomas back for Sunday dinner. “Free food and not base food, I went!” Thomas says. “They had a film strip. Then, they invited me to something called family home evening. Free food again? OK, I went.” Pretty soon Thomas found himself an adopted member of the Holtkamp family, and every time he stepped into their home, “they were having some kind of lesson or some kind of filmstrip. That went on from July until Thanksgiving time,” Thomas says.

At the beginning of December, Thomas attended a fast and testimony meeting with the Holtkamps. “[A member] got up and said, ‘In order to know if something is right and true, you have to act upon that truth.’ That smacked me right upside the head,” Thomas says. “I went out to the foyer and I was standing there. I didn't know what to do. I was puzzled in my mind. I left and walked back to the base and sat on the flight line most of the day.”

That night at the chow hall, when Steve walked into the room, Thomas had one question for him: “What would you say if I said wanted to have the missionary discussions?”

“He screams, yells, tries to yank me out of my chair. I try to sit him down so we can have a calm and rational talk here,” Thomas recalls. With all the ruckus, it looked as if the two were fighting, so before the military police could arrive and complicate the situation, Thomas went with Steve in his jeep. “We went out to the Holtkamp home,” Thomas recalls. “He walks in without knocking and announces that Isaac is going to have the missionary discussions. They had six daughters and they all screamed. The son runs out of his room. Dad puts down his paper and has a big grin on his face. I had the first two discussions that night.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, Thomas received all the missionary discussions in the Holtkamp home, feeling the Spirit and truth of what he was taught—until the final discussion.

“The last discussion they gave to me was why I could not hold the priesthood. Now, during all the time they had been teaching me to that point, I had not met a member or anyone else that seemed untoward or racist or bigoted. And trust me, I can spot those people. They can't hold it together for six months. I think I was in a bubble at that point, to be honest with you, and they pulled out all these books and had scriptures open and they told me why I could not hold the priesthood,” Thomas says. “I could feel the earth move under my feet, as Carol King would say. … But I also knew this family and these people cared about me, and they would not do or say anything intentionally to hurt me. They ended in the name of Jesus Christ, and I sat there. That house, even with six girls in it, was silent. I said, ‘Oh. You’ll have to tell me that again.’ They had a prayer and started over. An hour and a half later or so, at that point, something [God] said, ‘This is my priesthood. I can do what I want with it.’ I said, ‘OK, fine. I'm good with that. My people served your people for so long, now it's your turn to serve me.’”

During the entire discussion, two things calmed Thomas: First, he knew the Holtkamp family loved him unconditionally, and second, he had a testimony of gospel truths that later developed into an unshaken faith. “I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I knew that the Book of Mormon was the word of God. For me to go, ‘Uh, uh’ at that point is like saying, ‘OK God, you gotta be wrong.’ And I'm sorry, the Man is still good at turning people into pillars of salt and using lightning bolts. I'm not going to fight God on anything. I am not.”

On December 15, 1972, Isaac Thomas was baptized a member of the Church.

Read more about Isaac's experience hearing about the revelation extending the priesthood to worthy black members of the Church and becoming the first black man sealed for time and all eternity to his wife in the Salt Lake City Temple.

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