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'Black 14' football players, wronged in 1969, team with LDS church in healing charity act

Nine tractor-trailers, each loaded with 40,000 pounds of nonperishable items, are making their way to food banks across the country this week. One of the trucks arrived Thursday morning at the Lowcountry Food Bank.

The donations are a result of a partnership between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Black 14, a group of football players wronged by racism in 1969.

Nine of the 14 former footballers and the church they once saw as an adversary now are on a joint mission to feed students in need. The project is part of the Black 14’s “Mind, Body and Soul” initiative and it has transpired thanks to a phone call.

The local food bank received 22 pallets of corn, spaghetti, chili con carne, green beans, dressing, salsa, peanut butter, rotini soup, macaroni, tomato sauce, peaches, spaghetti sauce, boxed mashed potato mix, and pears, according to spokeswoman Jill Hirsekorn.

In 1969, during the height of the Black Power movement in the U.S., Black athletes sometimes felt compelled to add their voices to protests calling for justice. Remember runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium during the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City?

A year later, when the University of Wyoming football team was set to play against Brigham Young University, 14 of Wyoming’s Black players received some disturbing news.

Mel Hamilton, a Roman Catholic native of Charleston who now lives in Lake City, was on the team at the time. In a telephone interview, he recalled what happened.

Someone at the meeting said, “You guys realize who you’re playing on Saturday, right?”

“Yeah, BYU,” came the innocent reply.

“Do you know who owns the team?”

“The state.”

“Nope, the Mormon religion owns BYU. Do you realize the Mormon religion does not allow Black men to become priests in the church?”

That presented the players with a problem.

“We got this information,” Hamilton said. “We thought we were called upon to do something to participate in the social revolution. … We decided we should wear black armbands during the game on Saturday.”

It would be a subtle protest signaling that these Black players disapproved of discriminatory church policies. The captain of the team, who was Black, went to tell coach Lloyd Eaton of the plan.

Eaton sent him back to the group with a message: There will be no demonstration.

That didn’t sit well with the 14 players, so they decided to go talk to the coach together to discuss what action might be acceptable, Hamilton said.

But they didn’t get the chance.

“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Gentlemen, I can save you a lot of breath and time. As of now, you are no longer football players at the University of Wyoming.'”

Scholarships suddenly evaporated. The 14 players were unsure of their next step. Most returned home or transferred to other schools, Hamilton said.

“I and three others could not get any team to touch us,” he said. “You could imagine we were hot potatoes at that point.”

Food Pantry tour.jpg

Carey Hamilton, wife of Mel Hamilton, and others tour the Lowcountry Food Bank on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Hamilton, who had interrupted his college education with two years in the Army, could finish his undergraduate studies because of the GI Bill. The other three players also remained at the University of Wyoming, thanks to the largesse of faculty members.

Two of the Black players went on to have careers in the NFL: Tony McGee played for the New England Patriots and Joe Williams played for the New Orleans Saints.

The team had won the Sun Bowl in 1966, and Hamilton was convinced that, in 1969, the team would have played in the Sugar Bowl.

“We think it was the best team that the school ever had,” he said. “We knew we could compete with the big boys — Nebraska, the Ohio Buckeyes. Unfortunately, we couldn’t prove it because of the racist attitude of one man.”

Black 14 (copy)

Pictured are 10 of the Black 14 who were kicked off of the University of Wyoming football team in 1969. Front row, Earl Lee; second row, John Griffin and Willie Hysaw; third row, Don Meadows and Ivie Moore; fourth row, Tony Gibson, Jerry Berry and Joe Williams; back row, Mel Hamilton and Jim Isaac. University of Wyoming/Provided

That year wasn’t the first time the coach’s racism was put on display.

Two years earlier, when Hamilton notified the coach he planned on tying the knot and applying for married student housing, Eaton forbade it because the young woman was White.

“You can’t do that on the money of the people of Wyoming,” the coach said.

That was just the first blow of a one-two punch.

Later that same month, his girlfriend’s parents died together in a horseback riding accident, which pre-empted any wedding ceremony. So Hamilton quit school and joined the military. The couple never would fulfill their vows to one another, though they would remain friends.

Last year, the University of Wyoming apologized to the Black 14 and gave each the letter jackets that had been denied to them after they were kicked off the team.

Since then, the group has been working with the University of Wyoming’s diversity program. The subject of food insecurity and its impact on the education of young people was raised as an important challenge that needed to be faced.

Hamilton called Gifford Nielsen — former quarterback for the Houston Oilers and a Brigham Young University alumnus who now is a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to ask for support.

“As we became well-acquainted with Mel Hamilton, one of original Black 14, and found out about their cause, we wanted to help them; we wanted to be involved,” Nielsen said.

The initiative checked all the church's boxes, he said.

“We care about building families, the education of young people and reaching out to the poor and the needy.”

Nielsen also expressed regret that the Black players were prevented from speaking out and that the church had maintained a policy forbidding African Americans from becoming priests.

“I was just about ready to begin my career at Brigham Young as a quarterback,” he said. “I didn’t understand (the controversy) at the time.”

Mel Hamilton.jpg

Mel Hamilton, a member of the Black 14, partnered with the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to donate nonperishable items to food banks across the country, including the Lowcountry Food Bank. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

From the mid-1800s, the LDS church did not ordain Black men or allow Black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances, according to a church article.

On June 1, 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation that the church should be open to all, regardless of race.

In a gesture of contrition and cooperation, the church is joining the Black 14 to perform an act of charity.

“What an amazing and miraculous thing for these two groups to come together and do really good things for the communities,” Nielsen said.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com.

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