On Oct. 15, 1969, three days before the University of Wyoming’s No. 10-ranked football team was to play the Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University, Willie Black, a doctoral student at the university and head of the Black Student Alliance, issued his “We Must Protest” to his school administrators calling out The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ racist policies. Black’s letter highlighted the Mormon Church’s ban on black male priests and the prohibition of people of African descent from participating in temple rituals. In light of LDS’ ongoing discrimination, Black demanded that his fellow students take a stand against the Mormon church by protesting the BYU game.
In support of Black’s letter, Wyoming’s African-American football players (including future NFL star Tony McGee) decided that they would wear black armbands during the game. The day before the game, head coach Lloyd Eaton threw them off the team and revoked their athletic scholarships. Supporting Eaton’s decision, the university followed up with an announcement that declared, “The players will not play in today’s game or any [other] during the balance of the season.” The expulsion of those football players, who quickly became known as “the Black 14” (after Black’s letter) ignited a nationwide controversy, with the major television networks covering the story, campus protests all over the country launched in solidarity of Wyoming’s black athletes, and counterprotests mounted by local whites in support of Eaton.
Taking up this riveting but largely unremembered moment of American history is Black 14, a new short documentary by Darius Clark Monroe and executive produced by Spike Lee that debuted on the streaming platform Topic.com this month. In a phone interview with writer and activist Salamishah Tillet, Monroe talked about the protest’s resonance in the era of national anthem protests by NFL players, how overlooked independent black television footage shaped his story and why stories of student activism against racism are especially relevant today.
What drew you to the topic of the “Black 14?”
In 2015, a filmmaker from Wyoming pitched it to me. He’s a white guy, and I’m not sure but I think he didn’t feel comfortable making the film himself. After doing some research, I was definitely intrigued and once we delved into the archive and archival footage, I was on board. I knew I couldn’t tell it as a feature-length film, but I thought there was something worth doing for a short.
Are people in Wyoming or at the University of Wyoming familiar with this event?
I think it’s more popular in Wyoming today. For example, a college student at the University of Wyoming actually did her own Black 14 documentary short. But, in 2015, when I first learned of the story, it was not common knowledge beyond the University of Wyoming bubble. Which is strange because when the protests happened it was covered by a lot of the major national outlets, broadcast and print. Yet the story was somehow buried all of these years.
There are no extra talking heads or experts in this film. Why did you choose to solely use archival footage to tell the story?
When you’re looking at the archive, you realize that these young men really had no clue what was about to happen next week, next month or next year. I wanted the audience to realize they were making those decisions without having the luxury of time and reflection and with an immediate impact on their lives. I also wanted to allow people to have this fly-on-the-wall effect and being able to witness the behavior of the players, the town, the president, the governor and the fans without some modern-day voiceover or modern-day reflective dramatic throughline, but as if we were also there for that two weeks in 1969. That was a time before reality TV, and when people didn’t feel as nervous about saying what they wanted to say to cameras. For example, I think Mr. Willie Hysaw [one of the leaders of the Black 14] would never say some of the things he said about white people now. He’s been in corporate America for 30 years. So there’s something really powerful about that original footage; it’s really how he felt at the time as opposed to having him explain what he feels now combined with the time period.
How did the media cover the event back then?
One thing I noticed is that we assume journalism or news is very objective and with no type of bias. But when you watch the footage, especially that of John Davenport, who was the major reporter for ABC News, and pay attention to his questioning and voiceover, it’s very biased. And underneath the bias, there is racism. Some of his questions are very leading, his statements are paternalistic, and he talks to the black students like almost like a parent to a child. Ultimately, ABC never aired that footage. So when they sent us all their raw material, we realized that there was all this extra footage that was never clipped together. I believe it was because the average white person that was interviewed at the time said something offensive.
Did you find a difference in how black independent media represented the protest?
When John Davenport spoke to Hysaw, Hysaw is very confident and almost a bit confrontational about his thoughts. But the moment the team from “Black Journal,” one of the earliest black-produced newsmagazines on television, comes in he’s allowed to be vulnerable and have doubts. There’s a moment in the middle of our film when he’s with them and he questions this whole thing, asking what the point of protest really is. I thought that was important to show. Having an independent documentary team from a black organization was key to getting him to open up about different thoughts he wouldn’t share with other folks.
What aspects of the protests did you want the audience understand?
The lost leader. For many years, coverage would only talk about Tony McGee or some of the players who made it to the Super Bowl. But when we researched the story, we found that Hysaw risked it all, did not go to the Super Bowl and was blackballed not only because he was part of the Black 14, but he was one of the most radical and outspoken members. And yet he was erased out of all of the write-ups and a lot of the stories. The footage reveals the truth and when we went back in time, we found the person who really took a leap of faith and made a dangerous choice of being vocal and yet was literally wiped out of history for what he represented.
I was also struck by how unrelenting the counter-protesters were in their support of Eaton.
Yes, their actions speak to a level of cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy. I couldn’t figure out what they were ultimately representing other than white identity. When they walked around with an Eaton hat and an Eaton armband, what did they really represent? They were just so angry, but clearly not angry enough they couldn’t organize their own counterprotest. It reminds me of Jerry Jones deciding to take a knee with one of the players. To me that was an attempt to quell or tamper down any radical moment in the NFL. How can you say protests are causing problems and then protest the protest? All the things that you claim to be and represent as a citizen of this country, you’re actually end being the opposite when you protest these young men.