Update December 10th: More background. According to KSL Channel 5, the essay on "Race and the Priesthood" was posted last week, following publication of "First Vision Accounts" and "Are Mormons Christian?". It is part of the improved "Gospel Topics" pages which are found under the "Teachings" tab at the top of LDS.org, and is intended to use scholarship, historical perspectives and outside resources transparently to help parents answer questions children might encounter online. This is part of part of a larger, long-term effort to help families improve personal and family gospel study.
The essay is the most comprehensive and coherent document yet published, including all the pertinent historical milestones attendant to the Priesthood ban. It establishes the beginning of enforcement of the ban in 1852, although it acknowledges no revelatory origin. The essay also paints a portrait of the racial attitudes which prevailed at the time the ban was formalized by Brigham Young, hinting that this might have been influential. The LDS Church also reiterates that the previous theories used to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions have no doctrinal foundation and are strictly considered folklore today. Here are three key paragraphs:
In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
This shows that the formalization of the ban can be traced to 1852. The next excerpt shows how the advent of the Sao Paulo Temple in Brazil in 1975 gave renewed urgency to efforts to persuade the Lord to provide an answer to the Church leaders' entreaties to lift the ban:
Brazil in particular presented many challenges. Unlike the United States and South Africa where legal and de facto racism led to deeply segregated societies, Brazil prided itself on its open, integrated, and mixed racial heritage. In 1975, the Church announced that a temple would be built in São Paulo, Brazil. As the temple construction proceeded, Church authorities encountered faithful black and mixed-ancestry Mormons who had contributed financially and in other ways to the building of the São Paulo temple, a sanctuary they realized they would not be allowed to enter once it was completed. Their sacrifices, as well as the conversions of thousands of Nigerians and Ghanaians in the 1960s and early 1970s, moved Church leaders.
Because the Church had been commanded to go forth and preach the Gospel worldwide, continuing the Priesthood ban against blacks would hinder the spread of the Gospel despite the fact that many Africans had joined the Church even with the ban in place. Their faith needed to be rewarded. Finally, the answer came through in 1978:
Church leaders pondered promises made by prophets such as Brigham Young that black members would one day receive priesthood and temple blessings. In June 1978, after “spending many hours in the Upper Room of the [Salt Lake] Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,” Church President Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors in the First Presidency, and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received a revelation. “He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come,” the First Presidency announced on June 8. The First Presidency stated that they were “aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us” that “all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood.” The revelation rescinded the restriction on priesthood ordination. It also extended the blessings of the temple to all worthy Latter-day Saints, men and women. The First Presidency statement regarding the revelation was canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 2.
The LDS Church concludes the essay by stating unequivocally that they disavow the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form. Of course, there is one remaining official Church manual, Aaronic Priesthood Manual #3, dated 1995, which quotes Spencer W. Kimball as saying in 1976, “We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question”, but there's no implication in this statement that one race is preferable above another. And note that President Kimball stated that marrying within the faith is the most important of all.
The Church's essay effectively summarizes the origin and promulgation of the Priesthood ban under one roof, and promotes understanding about cultural influences upon the Church in earlier times. Some LDS members like Gina Colvin are dissatisfied and think the Church should offer an apology. However, an apology not only might leave the LDS Church open to nuisance litigation, but is clearly unnecessary since there was no evidence of malicious intent. Those who were victimized by the ban have long since left this mortal coil and could not possibly benefit from an apology. And who are we to sit in judgment of people who lived during an earlier time, were subjected to different political and cultural influences, and possessed less knowledge and light than us? Remember the Second Article of Faith:
"We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression".
While written specifically to rebut the doctrine of infant baptism, this article also infers that we bear no responsibility for historical sin so long as we correct the policies which led to it. It is unfair to hold someone responsible for past actions over which they had no control.
Other LDS Reaction: On Mormon Church History, Jared welcomes the essay, stating "The words 'in any form', as I read them, extend not only to individual racism but institutional. The temple/priesthood ban was racist in that it denied the blessings of the priesthood and temple to black Church members based solely on their racial background. The institution as well as individuals bear responsibility for its perpetuation. The Church has now owned that. Maybe not as explicitly as some may hope, but it has owned it and disavowed it. So can we".