FREE SPEECH: Cowboy Courage

By on January 10, 2017

How a former UW student shed light on civil rights issues in the face of intolerant school and state officials.

‘The Black 14’ (Photo: wyohistory.org)

‘The Black 14’ (Photo: wyohistory.org)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When he woke up on October 17, 1969, Mel Hamilton was a starter for the 12th best football team in the country, the University of Wyoming Cowboys. The team was undefeated and was slated to play Brigham Young University the next day. But things did not go as planned. That evening the Cowboys’ coach, Lloyd Eaton, kicked Hamilton and the rest of the 13 African American players off the team for standing up against racism in the Mormon Church, which operates BYU. It created a national controversy that has affected Hamilton ever since. Known as “The Black 14,” the men’s expulsion from the team also crippled the Cowboys and damaged the university’s reputation.

It was a time of national and regional racial tension, and athletes were using their playing fields as a stage to engage with the civil rights struggle. The year before, US Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on their medalist platforms at the 1968 Summer Olympics in solidarity with the civil rights movement.

Simultaneously, collegiate athletes were boycotting competitions with BYU because of racism within the Mormon Church, specifically the church’s ban against black men in the priesthood. In April 1969, black track athletes at the University of Texas in El Paso were kicked off their team when they refused to participate in a meet against BYU.

Hamilton also wanted to take a stand. But trouble ensued for him because athletes at UW were prohibited from demonstrating. According to Phil White, then-editor of UW student newspaper The Branding Iron, the 14 black members of the Cowboys walked into their coach’s office to have a conversation about the rule while sporting black armbands in solidarity with the UW Black Student Alliance, which had called for some kind of protest.

Hamilton told PJH he never expected his fate to be the same as the Texas athletes. He thought Eaton would tell them that they couldn’t wear the armbands during the game, but that “they’d figure something else out.”

Instead, they were kicked off the team and berated in what Hamilton called “a racial manner.” Eaton condemned the men for being ungrateful, saying he’d taken them off of the streets, put food in their mouths, saved them from welfare.

The event highlighted a fissure in Wyoming. In an interview with The Planet, White estimated that 90 percent of Wyomingites backed the Cowboys’ coach.

Meanwhile, however, students on campuses and folks across the country showed their support for the players. Four black track athletes left the university in solidarity with the football players. According to an article by White on Wyohistory.org, a month after the incident, the president of Stanford University decided that his school’s athletes would not compete against BYU.

In light of negative publicity, UW reversed its ban on athletes protesting. Still, in Wyoming, former governor Stanley Hathaway and the school administration stood behind Eaton, and many notable citizens in the state did too. Casper businessman Dode Gerdom told the Casper Star-Tribune, “We don’t care if Wyoming wins another game—we stand behind the coach.”

The dismissal of the men hurt the team’s success. After years of triumph, the team faltered, losing 26 of their next 38 games through 1972. White reported that the team struggled to recruit African American players for years afterwards.

In response to sustained student outcry, Eaton eventually decided that The Black 14 could be allowed back on the team, but only if white teammates individually voted them back in. Only three decided to rejoin the team. The rest left the state. Hamilton was the only one who stayed at UW without rejoining the team. He refused “the indignity” of being voted back by white players, not one of whom had stood up for The Black 14. “I wouldn’t beg them to take me back,” he said.

Hamilton, who moved from Wyoming to South Carolina just months ago, told PJH that this incident remains “one of the most painful memories of my life to this day.” Hamilton couldn’t watch football for 15 years. Some teammates, he says, left the state and never “wanted to hear the name ‘Wyoming’ again.”

His experiences as a member of The Black 14 highlight both the high cost of protest and its importance, and contain special relevance today. In August of 2016, the 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling when the national anthem played during games.

“I am not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told NFL.com.

In November, ThinkProgress reported that since Kaepernick began his silent protest, at least 48 NFL athletes from 13 teams have joined, as well as many student athletes. Protests have occurred in more than 50 high schools, 39 colleges, and one middle school across 35 states. Like Hamilton, these athletes have faced extreme backlash. They have lost endorsements, and kids as young as 11 have received death threats.

Hamilton is not surprised by the outrage. He tells people they should prepare to be “hit in the face” if they decide to speak against injustice. However difficult it is though, he believes that “every person will have their own time when they know they have to take a stand.”

His advice for people who want to exercise their rights to peacefully demonstrate? “You have to help people who are afraid see that they can do it too if you know what you’re fighting for, you’ll be OK it’s always important to speak when people are suffering.”

For many African Americans, protest has come at a high cost. “This whole country has always made it very hard for people to express their concerns, especially black people,” Hamilton said. Just four years before The Black 14 incident, about 50 people who were marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of voting rights were hospitalized when police attacked them with tear gas, whips and clubs. Black people have also faced outcry simply for being in historically white dominated spaces. In 1962, the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi, and the violent outcry caused former president John F. Kennedy to send 5,000 troops to campus.

Hamilton experienced this kind of backlash firsthand as an educator in Wyoming. He spent 28 years in the Natrona County School District, where he was the vice principal of East Junior High School in Casper for three years.

There was much opposition to having him as a leader. In an interview with White published by Wyohistory.org, Hamilton says someone wrote a big 666 in the snow in front of his house, that people called him the “head n*gger in charge,” mocked the way he spoke, and made jokes about how he could hold the door for white colleagues. There was a “concerted effort to get me out of there.” Eventually the administration removed him as vice principal.

“It never really ended for me,” Hamilton told PJH. People frequently brought up The Black 14, and said he was too outspoken. Sometimes, he said he wished it would just go away. As a black man in Wyoming, Hamilton says he was expected to “know my place to give in to whatever happens.” As long as he remained in the sports sphere he was OK. “But boy, if I step out of that box, people told me that I was out of place.”

On that fateful October day, Hamilton lost his scholarship and a team he said he truly loved. Being kicked of the team “destroyed some of the joy of my life it was like having a grandma who doesn’t want you, who throws you out of the house, and you’re hurt to the deepest part of your body, and you know you can’t go back anymore.”

He spent much of the rest of his time at UW feeling vulnerable and on guard.

This pain, however, taught him a kind of strength he’s passed on to his children and hundreds of students in the state. When Eaton was berating The Black 14, Hamilton stared him in the eye and smiled. This small defiance is emblematic of his attitude. At UW and throughout his time in Wyoming, his pride sustained him. “I put on a brave front, I threw my head and chest back, and I took everything they gave me even when it was hard to.” PJH

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