CHEYENNE —The return to the state last week of seven of the “Black 14” University of Wyoming football players who were kicked off the team nearly 50 years ago coincides with a new book about the controversy.
“Wyoming in Mid-Century: Prejudice, Protest and the ‘Black 14’” by Phil White Jr. focuses on the details of the black players’ protest against the racial policies of the Mormon Church, owner of the all-white Brigham Young University team.
It also tells what happened to the 14 players after they were sacked by then-coach Lloyd Eaton on Friday Oct. 17, 1969, for wanting to wear black armbands during the game.
White, a Wyoming native, is a lawyer and a journalist who now lives in Laramie. (Full disclosure; he is a friend and former Casper Star-Tribune colleague).
A University of Wyoming graduate, he was editor of the student newspaper, the Branding Iron, at the time of the Black 14 incident.
He wrote an editorial supporting the black players, which was contrary to the editorial opinions of most of the newspapers in the state at that time.
The incident on the Laramie campus caused an uproar throughout the state and outside of it. The dismissal wrecked the university’s football program, which went from a great winning streak to a pathetic losing record.
The school understandably had trouble recruiting black players afterward.
“Between the end of World War II and the end of the Vietnam War, a review of events in Wyoming provides a poignant depiction — in microcosm — of the dominant themes, protest and struggles affecting the nation as a whole: nuclear weapons, Vietnam War, the draft and draft resistance, racial inequality and civil rights,” White writes in the introduction.
“As to the latter, the events at either end of that spectrum illustrated that much remained to be done.”
The first event in the book is the 1947 Casper “baby contest,” sponsored by the Moose Lodge Auxiliary.
Mrs. Harry Gray, an African-American native of Casper married to an African-American tech sergeant stationed at the Casper Army Air Base, registered her three-year-old son for the contest.
When men from the Moose lodge saw the required photo, they said black babies were to be removed from the contest and Mrs. Gray was so informed.
This is the beginning of a trail of tales about the state’s ignominious performances in the civil rights area during that period culminating with the infamous Black 14 case.
The black players said they had been subject to racial slurs from the BYU players in the previous year’s contest. They were trying to respond to a UW Black Student Alliance call for protests against BYU when they visited Eaton.
Similar protests by black student groups were taking place on other college campuses, including Arizona State.
At issue was the policy of the Mormon Church at that time against admitting African-Americans to leadership positions, including the priesthood.
The Wyoming black players said Eaton derided them for wearing the armbands and would not allow them to speak before he booted them from the team.
The controversy that erupted over the dismissals was divisive.
The university administration never objected to White’s editorial in favor of the 14 players but his staff members did.
Many of the staffers decided he had gone overboard, White wrote in an e-mail. He felt this left him no choice but to get out of the way. After two more issues, he quit the paper.
The UW Arts and Sciences faculty also sided with the black players while the agriculture department supported the coach.
White’s book also deals with protests of the Vietnam War, the draft, ICBM missiles near Cheyenne and the abysmal treatment of a gifted Cheyenne teacher who lost his job because he was too liberal and was head of the local teacher’s union.
The highlight is the story of the Black 14. It reflects exhaustive research about the incident in context with the cultural and attitudes the day and the histories of these men.
I had been working for the Casper Star-Tribune in Cheyenne for only four months when the Black 14 episode exploded.
I remember Al Pence, then the chair of the UW trustees, telling other members of the state board of education that the dismissals set back the university’s football program by ten years.
That was a pretty fair estimate.
At first, most people supported Eaton. But that support waned as the team kept losing games. Eaton abruptly stepped down as coach.
White’s book tells it all.