The Black 14 of WyomingBy: Mormon Heretic
Margaret Young organized a special meeting at BYU on Saturday night. She invited Mel Hamilton to discuss his experiences as part of the Black 14 protest against BYU in 1969. Mel grew up Catholic in North and South Carolina. In 1965, he was recruited to be part of the University of Wyoming football team. Arriving in Laramie, he said there were only 6 blacks on the entire campus of the University of Wyoming, and it was a bit of a culture shock for him.
Following his arrival in Laramie, his football coach did not like it when black players dated white women. With just 6 blacks on campus (and most on the football team), this essentially meant that he was to date nobody. He noticed that while walking on campus, one woman crossed the street every day as he was walking to class. After about a week of this, he decided to cross the street when she did and talked to her. She had never seen a black person in her life. He invited her to have a cup of coffee together to clear the air, and she became a good friend. His second year in Wyoming, he asked a white woman to marry him. The athletic director felt there was nothing wrong, but his football coach torpedoed efforts for his to get married student housing. Before the wedding, his fiance’s parents died while crossing a river in Cody, Wyoming on horseback. This put their relationship on hold, and Mel decided to join the military in 1967, leaving the University of Wyoming. He spent one year in Turkey working in radio teletype communication.
Two years later, his football coach wrote him and asked him to return to the football team. Because his mother wanted him to get an education, Mel decided to return. As they prepared to play BYU in 1969, 14 black members of the football team learned that the LDS Church didn’t allow blacks to become priests. They decided to wear black armbands in protest of the policy. On a very horrible day in those bleachers in coaches area, the football coach took us in and said, ‘Gentlemen, you are no longer a Cowboy football player.’ Somebody tried to say something—but coach made up his mind–they were no longer on team the team. The coach went on a tirade of a racist nature. If a woman doing her workout in the area below wouldn’t have substantiated the tirade, nobody would have believed it. All 14 players were kicked off the football team. They were undefeated going into the BYU game, and were probably headed to the Sugar Bowl.
Mel said that the Black 14 was his rite of passage. Prior to that event, he considered himself as a very shy altar boy who would not think of ever not following an order from a superior. But at Wyoming, he said ‘I will wear black armband, I will marry this girl.’ As he looks back, those two negative responses to authority are probably only two he made in his life. He now tells of this incident to high school students. This case is taught in every junior high school in Wyoming, and is taught at the University of New Mexico law school, University of Wyoming law school, University of Arizona, and many others. Mel is often asked
Would I do it again? That’s always a stupid question. If the situation was the same, obviously yes. Do I wish it was different? Yes. Do I wish there was transition period in Laramie, for people of different lifestyle? Yes.
He said there is a cultural blindness. People can see differences, but don’t know how to react. Basically, the Black 14 happened because of ignorance in how we should treat fellow human beings. Mel definitely believes that he helped change the policy of the LDS Church, and he thinks he had something to do with that revelation. ‘You won’t convince me I didn’t. Whether it was divine intervention on my part, I had something to do with revelation.’
Wyoming is set to play a football game in Arizona. Coaches at Wyoming noted that Arizona doesn’t have a MLK holiday yet. Now coaches are asking players what they want to do. The team has chosen to go and wear MLK badges. ‘What a novel idea?’ Mel said. ‘What is the difference between that and armband?’ This is the legacy of the Black 14.
Now there is a little statue in the Student Union, and a lot of people are upset that the statue is not larger. Mel responds, ‘Man you’re in Wyoming. Think where you are. I’ll take anything I can get.’ The ignorance can’t continue.
Mel said, ‘Your religion is yours, mine is mine. They say you are a cult. Who am I to say? A lot of people thought Catholics were a cult. I do not make judgment on any religion. I took a stand against a policy, and nothing else. If Catholics had a similar policy, I would take offense to that.’
He had no idea that he was helping his future family. His son Malik was not born yet, but married a Mormon girl. That’s the irony of the situation–he was fighting for his son. There are things that are encouraging. Four years ago, the LDS Institute in Laramie volunteered to make black armbands for 40th anniversary of the Black 14 protest. Darius Gray was very happy to see the change for the Institute.
Because of the controversy in 1969, black students at Wyoming felt that there were no black Mormons. Darius Gray, employed at KSL, was asked to travel to Wyoming to smooth over feelings and provide evidence that black men did exist in the Mormon Church. Darius had very mixed feelings as he dealt with the situation. He noted he is a proud Mormon, and a proud Black man.
In the question and answer session, someone asked Darius how he dealt with living through the ban. Darius was baptized December 26, 1964. On Christmas night, he had his baptismal interview. The missionaries asked if he had given up smoking, drinking, and swearing. Did he accept Jesus Christ as his savior? Did Darius have any questions?
Yes he did. Darius noted that the Book of Mormon peoples, the Lamanites have dark skin and were out of favor with God. ’How does that relate to me?’ It was at this point he learned that he would not hold the priesthood–the night before. At this point Darius tuned out and wasn’t listening to their explanation. He thought these were two of the biggest bigots on God’s green earth, and they claimed to be representatives of Jesus Christ. He left the meeting thinking that there is “No way in hell I’ll be baptized tomorrow”, but he didn’t let them know. He went home. His mom had previously warned him that Mormons were racist. He went to his room, and got ready for bed. Because his Colorado Springs room was cold, he said his prayers in bed.
He had a sliding window in his room. He said his prayer and closed the window, troubled but it all. He opened the window again and uttered a 2nd prayer. Following this prayer, he received a personal revelation. He heard the voice of divinity. It said, “this is the restored gospel, and you are to join.” There was no mention of priesthood restriction. This is the restored gospel. You are to join. So on Dec 26, he went to chapel and was baptized with no member of his family in attendance.
“If you were to hear voice of divinity, and were clear about the source, this is not me imagining a voice. It’s awfully hard to deny. I was baptized Saturday, and went to church. It gave me the strength to endure.”
In response to a question about race relations, Darius described the events of the day. This was 1969, the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Cities were on fire. There were tremendous racial tensions. We are better in some ways, but not as good as we can be. There has been some regression since President Obama was elected. There is more overt racism than seen in decades prior. In some ways, we are back to early the 50s and 60s. Whatever your politics, we should respect the office of the president. This is not happening. ’There are issues that I support the President on, and there are issues I disagree with him on. It is the same with President Bush. I disagreed with respect. Racism has reared its ugly head.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about Mel was the fact that he highlighted race problems not only in the LDS Church, but in other places like Wyoming and Arizona. With the George Zimmerman verdict this weekend, we can see race problems in Florida as well, though I am greatly encouraged that Floridians are not responding violently as happened in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict. What are your thoughts?