I looked forward to the assignment given to me in July of 1975: to cover President Spencer W. Kimball’s trip to Tennessee. Before I moved to Utah, my home branch was in Hazlehurst, Georgia, then part of the Southern States Mission, of which Tennessee was also a part. I looked forward to “going home” and seeing the prophet on what I considered my home turf.
Chattanooga was one of the cities President Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, visited. My family went on vacations there many times. I knew some of the local Latter-day Saints and was extra pleased that they and others would get to see and hear President Kimball.
I was keenly aware of how difficult it was “in those days” for Latter-day Saints to be given any kind of positive public recognition, so it was with great pleasure that I watched Chattanooga’s Mayor Pat Rose welcome President and Sister Kimball and present them symbolic keys to the city when they arrived on Friday, July 25.
I’ll always remember the mayor providing a police escort for all of us in President Kimball’s party. It was a sight! A police car led and followed each of our cars and officers on motorcycles rode to the left and right of every car.
That evening Mayor Rose introduced President Kimball at a meeting held in a downtown theater and presented him with a certificate that named him an ambassador of goodwill for Chattanooga.
“I know he’s here to represent the Lord and do the Lord’s work,” the mayor said. “There’s nothing more important than that.”
President Kimball began to respond, but at that moment two men in the audience stood and pounded on seat backs with broom handles and shouted. One called out to the mayor, “Are you going to sell out Jesus Christ to this apostate crowd?”
The incident lasted only a couple of minutes. After being ushered from the theater the men were charged later with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
I’m sure that many members were embarrassed by the behavior of the men who disrupted the meeting. I felt some of that embarrassment — the prophet had come to the South, a place known for its hospitality, and was treated rudely.
The public disturbance also reminded many of us of historical reports of earlier hostilities toward Latter-day Saints. Many in the Southern States Mission had visited Varnell Station, about 20 miles southeast of Chattanooga, just over the Tennessee-Georgia state line where there is a monument honoring a Mormon missionary.
The monument honors Elder Joseph Standing, a missionary who was killed by a mob on July 21, 1879. President David O. McKay dedicated the monument on May 3, 1952, and its history is well-known to many Latter-day Saints in the area.
But that night in Chattanooga, nearly a century after the fatal hostilities, President Kimball remained standing at the lectern during the interference. When the auditorium became quiet, he continued with his remarks and thanked the mayor for his kindness.
He did not say anything about the disturbance but proceeded as if nothing had happened. He complimented the residents of the area upon their beautiful surroundings and expressed gratitude for the growth of the Church in the South. He said: “We expect to continue to grow because we have a program that will bring to people joy, peace, and happiness … and will bring people closer to the Lord.”