Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Black 14, University of Wyoming, Laramie Wyoming

This is a monument to The Black 14 in the University of Wyoming's Student Union.

The Black 14 were fourteen University of Wyoming football players who, in 1969, wanted to wear black armbands during the University of Wyoming v. Brigham Young football game. The action was intended to protest the policy of the Mormon church in excluding blacks from leadership roles in their church.  Coach Eaton, the UW football coach at the time, dismissed all fourteen players prior to the game, ending their football careers at UW and, at least in some cases, simply ending them entirely.

The event was controversial at the time, and to a lesser degree, has remained so.  Generally, in most of Wyoming, Coach Eaton was supported, rather than the players, which doesn't mean that the players did not have support.  As time has gone on, however, views have changed and generally the players are regarded as heroes for their stand.  Views on Eaton are qualified, with some feeling he was in the wrong, and others feeling that he was between a rock and a hard place and acted as best as he could, even if that was not for the best.

It is indeed possible even now to see both sides of the dramatic event.  The players wanted to wear black armbands in protest of the Mormon's policy of not allowing blacks to be admitted to the Mormon priesthood and therefore also excluding them from positions of leadership in the Mormon church.  This policy was well know in much of Wyoming as the Mormon theology behind it, which held that blacks were descendant of an unnatural union on the part of Noah's son Cain, resulted in black human beings.  This was unlikely to be widely known, however, amongst blacks at the University of Wyoming, most of whom (but not all of which) came from outside of the state.  A week or so prior to the UW v. BYU game, however, Willie Black, a black doctoral candidate at UW who was not on the football team, learned of the policy.  Black was head of the Black Students Alliance and called for a protest.  The plan to wear armbands then developed.

The protest, therefore, came in the context of a civil rights vs. religious concepts background, a tough matter in any context.  To make worse, it also came during the late 60s which was a time of protest, and there had been one against the Vietnam War just days prior to the scheduled game. Following that, Eaton reminded his players of UW's policy against student athletes participating in any demonstration, a policy which raises its own civil liberties concern. The players went ahead with tehir plans and Eaton removed all of them from the team.

Looked at now, it remains easy to see why Eaton felt that he had to act, while also feeling that he acted much too harshly.  Not everyone agrees with this view by any means, however.  Many, but a declining number, still feel Eaton was right.  A much larger number feel he was definitely wrong.  Few hold a nuanced view like I've expressed.  Even those who felt that Eaton was right often admire the protesting players, however.

Anyway its looked at, the Black 14 are now a definite part of Wyoming's legacy as The Equality State, even if most of them were not from here (at least one, and maybe more, were).  This year at Wyoming History Day, a statewide high school history presentation competition, which had the theme of "taking a stand", they were the subject of one static display and two video presentations.  They may be more well remembered now than at any time since the late 1970s, and this memorial in the student union certainly contributes to that.