Martin Luther King Jr. Day—observed yearly on the third Monday of January—honors the achievements of Dr. King, a prominent civil rights leader who played a vital role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, facilities, and employment. He also launched a campaign of civil disobedience in Selma, Alabama, to bring national attention to disenfranchisement of Black voters in the South, which resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His assassination in 1968, like the killing of another civil rights leader, Malcolm X, in 1965, radicalized many Black activists, fueling the growth of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During this time, marked not only by civil rights protests but anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Wyoming seemed to avoid the turbulence occurring around the U.S. Much of the state’s attention was instead focused on the University of Wyoming (UW) football team, which, by 1969, had produced three Western Athletic Conference (WAC) championships and a close loss in the 1968 Sugar Bowl. But unrest finally caught up with Wyoming in October 1969.
WAC schools had begun protesting policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which ran Brigham Young University (BYU), because of its policy of denying priesthood to Black men. The newly formed Black Student Alliance (BSA) at UW, in anticipation of the October 18th home game against BYU, issued a letter encouraging the campus community to protest this policy of the LDS church. The letter stated that the LDS policy was “clearly racist,” and that “all people of good will” should wear black armbands to protest the racial policies of the church during the game against BYU.
The day before the game, fourteen Black football players for UW approached their head coach, Lloyd Eaton, to ask if they could wear black armbands during the game to support the BSA’s call for protest. Eaton, known as a strict disciplinarian, immediately dismissed the players with angry and racist language. Shocked, the players emptied their lockers and walked across campus to ask if UW President William Carlson could arrange a meeting with Coach Eaton at Old Main. The players sought a resolution to the issue. As noted by Black 14 member Mel Hamilton in 2009, if Eaton had declined their request, the 14 still would have played the BYU game. The meeting was arranged for that afternoon. The 14 were there, as were Carlson, Athletic Director Red Jacoby and student leaders, but Eaton refused to appear.
That evening, the coaches and players met separately with the UW Board of Trustees and even Wyoming’s governor, Stanley Hathaway, during a special meeting lasting from 8 p.m. until 3:15 a.m. Game Day morning. Still, Eaton declined to appear. The university’s decision: The dismissals result from a violation of a football coaching rule Friday morning. In essence, the summary dismissal of the players was justified. The full brunt of UW and Wyoming officials were against the 14.
The dismissal of the 14 players put UW and Laramie into the national spotlight as camera crews from the three big TV networks and news crews from media outlets across the country came to Laramie. Reactions soon poured into the UW President’s Office. Through the President’s records—housed and digitized by the UW American Heritage Center—one can view firsthand those reactions on campus, state, and national levels. Here we provide a glimpse of the hundreds of letters that President Carlson received.
Support for the Decision
Letters, like the ones shown below, were sent to the UW President’s Office from all over the country, in support of UW’s stance. In many instances, the decision to dismiss the football players was applauded as one of principal.
Disapproval of the Decision
Although not as abundant, a number of letters of condemnation against UW’s action came into the President’s Office. Included in that number was a letter from U.S. Representative Donald W. Riegle, Jr., of Michigan, who was at the beginning of his political career. He would go on to serve five terms as a Representative and three terms as a U.S. Senator.
Chapters of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) around the country were quite vocal in their criticism. Two examples are letters below sent by AAUP at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Iowa. Both correspondents write of their concern about violation of the student protestors’ First Amendment rights.
The letter below is from a former UW faculty member who had taken a position at Kent State University. The letter reads: “Dear President Carlson: As a former faculty member of the University of Wyoming, I have always loved the school and been thankful for the opportunities it gave me. Now, however, I am no longer proud to have been associated with an institution which has been branded ‘racist’ throughout the country. Although Life reported that you support Eaton, I have read other accounts (New York Times) which report that you do not. I sincerely hope the latter source is true. To deny individuals a voice, even though they may be members of a team, is to deny the individuality of man – the most important thing any teacher or educator should realize.”
This letter, along with others from the AAUP, were critical of Coach Eaton and the UW President’s Office for their decision to dismiss the team members. This former professor’s letter also refers to two national publications that reported on the issue, showing that it was a hot topic in the national media. It is also interesting to note that six months after this letter was written, Kent State University would become the center of national scrutiny after students were shot by members of the Ohio National Guard while protesting the Vietnam War. This incident, just like the Black 14, influenced protests around the country.
The decision to support Eaton’s dismissal of the players continued to haunt UW for decades. The once winning football team went on to have many losing seasons over the next decade. UW had trouble recruiting Black student-athletes. The dismissed players struggled for years after they were labeled members of the Black 14. Finally, in 2019, the University of Wyoming issued an official apology to the surviving players, 50 years after their controversial dismissal from the team.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener with assistance from a Virmuze exhibit created in 2020 for the AHC by student intern Annie Stratton.