The Black 14 and Wyoming's cultural change

(Editor's Note: This is the winning essay from a contest hosted by the Sweetwater County Historical Museum. The writing prompt was: A local historical event that inspires me. Part of the grand prize is having the essay republished in the Green River Star. Jessica will be a senior at Green River High School this year.)

On Friday, Oct. 17, 1969, University of Wyoming star football players Jerome Berry, Tony Gibson, John Griffin, Lionel Grimes, Mel Hamilton, Ron Hill, Willie Hysaw, Jim Issac, Earl Lee, Tony McGee, Don Meadows, Ivie Moore, Joe Williams, and Ted Williams walked into the head football coach's office with black colored arm bands.

Through this simple movement, these 14 black men laid the foundation for the upheaval of the racial injustice in college football, but the impact spread far beyond the field. To this day, racial disparity exists, but protesters and activists persist changing the world we live in every day, growing closer to Martin Luther King's dream.

The Black 14 have had a major influence on racial equality, and continue to inspire others to stand strong in the face of adversity, fighting for what is morally justified. In the early 1890s, just a few years after Wyoming became a state, the University of Wyoming's football team made their debut. In the beginning, teams were primarily white and the University of Wyoming's team was no exception.

African American players saw a slight wave of acceptance in the 1920s when the first African American football players signed onto what would become the NFL after a 13-year ban, and the movement continued across sports especially when renowned player Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball, which sparked immense national change. By the 60s, African American sports players were fairly common, although discrimination within the teams was certainly not over.

In the 1969 football season, the University of Wyoming signed 14 black players to the team for the varsity football season, and started the year off with an impressive winning record. Ranked 12th in the nation, the Cowboys were preparing to face Brigham Young University, but conflict struck the week before the game. Willie Black, head of University of Wyoming's Black Student Alliance heard news of a discriminatory policy in the church that owns the private college, and began a movement sparked by outrage.

Throughout history, the church allowed African American members, even encouraging them to get baptized, and come to church, however, some injustices stood. In the original statement, the organization declared the need for a nonviolent protest to demonstrate a rule seen as unfair to the black community.

The group called out rules prohibiting black men from ascending to higher positions including priesthood and passing, preparing, or blessing sacrament as young boys do. The organization said this inhumane practice ought not be supported, and the college should not host this team on the premise due to inherently discriminatory policies. The black players on the team decided to stage a peaceful demonstration and still play the game, while recognizing the oppression by wearing black armbands during the game.

Prior to Saturday, the players went to discuss the idea with their head coach, but as they approached the office, the coach, Lloyd Eaton, led them to a seating area of the field house and immediately said each man was removed from the team for their actions. Witnesses claim the coach used vulgar language and discriminatory terms when addressing the men and furthered the intensity of the situation.

The players were dismissed from the team, and did not return for another game that season. After several meetings officials supported the coach's choice and the men were officially stripped from their football careers. The decision sparked long standing controversy, but was not overturned. In the following years, the church of BYU reviewed the rules and amended these to allow men of color to receive the same privileges and rights as white men in the church.

The relations continued to improve, not only in this specific church, but many others inspired by the revision of BYU's church rules. A few years after the incident, BYU also had its first African American football player -- a signal that the 14 had gotten the point through and it was being received well.

According to a recent interview of 10 men composing the Black 14, almost 50 years later, the University of Wyoming sincerely apologized for the events, as well as honored the players and recognized their contribution to making the University of Wyoming a better school for people of all ethnicities.

The men report that the decision to remove them from the team did not stop them from reaching their potential as people and that they do not see the event as something that ruined them but rather something that guided them to their purpose and sparked a fire in their activism.

Wyoming in recent years has made tremendous progress in race relations and leads the United States in improvement.

Wyoming has since had the greatest improvement in the racial wage gap of any state, as well as ranked amongst the top three in states creating education equality for minorities.

As a hopeful future UW Cowboy, the Black 14 inspire me to stand for equality, as neutrality in times of injustice supports the side of the oppressor. The men's simple actions have made an impact beyond their football game - the Black 14 shaped the Wyoming ideology of profound equality.

 

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