The 1960s was a time of turmoil in the United States. This turmoil extended to American college campuses. It focused on the Free Speech Movement and civil rights in the south, and gradually extended to the U.S. involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Some American colleges remained unmolested by the times. One was Brigham Young University.
This would not last. In the late 1960s, BYU became the focus of protests at its athletic competitions, over the LDS Church policy of barring blacks from the priesthood.
The July 15, 1968 edition of Newsweek featured the cover story “The Angry Black Athlete,” which stated:
It is a mess that extends from Niagara to the University of California, from Michigan to the University of Texas at El Paso. Sometimes the racial issue is inflamed by a coach’s get-tough policy. “I could give in to a lot of Negro demands,” says one Southwestern track coach, “and keep my team intact. But someone has to hold the line against these people.”
At El Paso, track coach Wayne Vandenburg threatened to kick six athletes off the team if they joined the boycott of the New York Athletic Club indoor meet in February. The club was charged with discriminatory membership policies. Vandenburg won and the athletes competed. But two months later, after a talk with Harry Edwards, the same athletes refused to enter a meet at Brigham Young University in Utah because of Mormon doctrines about blacks. Vandenburg promptly dropped champion long-jumper Bob Beamon and five others from the squad.
Coach Vandenberg sued Newsweek for defamation and, though he won a jury verdict, it was ultimately reversed on appeal, based on the court’s finding that the statements were not made with reckless disregard for the truth. The court credited as accurate the account of how, in April 1968, several black athletes at UTEP decided to boycott the BYU meet because, inter alia, of their understanding of Mormon beliefs concerning blacks. Officials at UTEP, including Coach Vandenburg, responded with a statement that any athlete who did not participate in the BYU meet would be “voluntarily disassociated.” from the track team. Vandenburg v. Newsweek, Inc., 441 F.2d 378 (5th Cir. 1971); Vandenburg v. Newsweek, Inc., 507 F.2d 1024 (5th Cir. 1975)
On October 17, 1969, at approximately 9:30 a.m., 14 members of the University of Wyoming football team confronted Head Football Coach Lloyd Eaton and members of his coaching staff in Memorial Fieldhouse at the University of Wyoming. They were all wearing black armbands, and their spokesman was Joe Harold Williams, who was then serving as team tri-captain. The players had provided the coach with a letter dated October 14, 1969, addressed to Dr. William D. Carlson, President of the University of Wyoming, signed by Willie S. Black, as Chancellor of the Black Students Alliance, an organization on the campus of the University of Wyoming, demanding that:
(a) University officials at the University of Wyoming, as well as other member institutions in the Western Athletic Conference, not use student monies and university facilities to play host to and thereby in part sanction alleged inhuman racist policies of the Mormon Church.
(b) That athletic directors in the Western Athletic Conference refuse to schedule and play games with BYU so long as the Mormon Church continues such alleged policies.
(c) That black athletes in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) protest in some way any contest with BYU so long as the Mormon Church continued such alleged policies, and
(d) That all white people of good will, athletes included, protest with their black fellows a policy allegedly clearly inhuman and racist and that the symbol of protest be the black armband worn throughout any contest involving BYU.
Coach Eaton told the players that a rule prohibited members of the University of Wyoming football team from participating in demonstrations and protests, and he advised Williams that there would be no demonstrations or protests within the scheduled football game between Wyoming and BYU. When the players persisted and, at the behest of the university’s highest officials, they were kicked off the team. Williams v. Eaton, 310 F.Supp. 1342 (D. Wyo. 197); Williams v. Eaton, 443 F.2d 422 (10th Cir. 1971); Williams v. Eaton, 333 F.Supp. 107 (D. Wyo. 1971); Williams v. Eaton, 468 F.2d 1079 (10th Cir. 1972).
The University of New Mexico student government, as a WAC-member school,was in the process of reviewing the University of Wyoming letter. On November 12, 1969, the BYU Daily Universe published a letter to editor from Brian Mazill of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The letter read:
I am one non-Mormon who thinks the notion of the University of New Mexico’s student Senate is one of the most unreasonable examples of the bigoted minds of so-called ‘liberals’ I’ve ever seen.
In the first place, BYU is a privately-endowed school. It is not supported by the taxpayers like the other universities are members of the WAC.
Mainly, the reason for Negro athletes being at the other schools stems not from any great degree of humanitarianism on the part of those institutions. To the contrary, the reason for many, or even most, of Negro athletes being at these schools is because of their acknowledged athletic ability. The alumni preferred these schools during the past 10-15 years to give athletic scholarships to Negro athletes to assure success for their teams.
The Negro athletes have won games for these schools, they have seen and heard the coed cheerleaders go into hysterical frenzy over their exploits—only to find, after the game was over, they were supposed to keep their place. They were led to believe that by attending otherwise predominantly ‘white’ (a silly word, if you examine it closely) schools, the Negroes would be pals with all the other students and it didn’t work out that way. Now, the more militant want their own dorms, eating facilities, etc.
On the other hand, Brigham Young University has competed with the other members of WAC handicapped by not having black athletes on their teams, but the students, and alums, have registered no complaints. Mind you, BYU is not tax supported, therefore, I ask what the hell business it is of your sanctimonious hypocrites who the BYU administration wants to have on its campus?
The Negroes have reached the state in their development in this country at which anyone who doesn’t agree with them is considered a ‘racist,’ or bigot. The white students at schools such as New Mexico who voted for the expulsion of BYU from WAC don’t give a real hoot about their black brothers. They just consider it the in-thing to be ‘liberal’ about such matters.
If the LDS only want to have whites for the priesthood, what business of the Negroes? Do they have members of the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, who are ‘white’? As a Protestant, such as I am, can I take communion at a Catholic Church? As a non-Mason can I attend the secret sessions of the organization? All the more power to Brigham Young.
After Ezra Taft Benson’s death in 1994, a photocopy of this letter was found in his papers. The final paragraph of the letter, in the margin, were two words written in Benson’s handwriting: “Very good.”
A WAC basketball game between Colorado State University and BYU was scheduled for February 5, 1970, in Moby Gymnasium on the CSU Campus at Fort Collins, Colorado.
During the game’s halftime intermission, pom pom girls from BYU were performing on the basketball floor when a group of persons (largely students) invaded the basketball court carrying signs of protest against the claimed discriminatory practices of the Mormon Church and BYU. This group marched the length of the floor and disrupted the girls’ performance. Campus police and City of Fort Collins police were called, and they attempted to control the melee. A fight broke out between an employee who was trying to wipe down the basketball floor and several of the demonstrators, and it was stopped by the police only with substantial difficulty. A flaming missile was thrown from the stands onto the floor. Someone either threw or wielded a lethal piece of steel angle iron which struck a press photographer in the head. Tempers of many of the spectators (including the tempers of the overwhelming majority of the students in attendance) became short, and the rage of the crowd at the unauthorized interruption of the halftime activities and delay of play of the second half became dangerously apparent. The situation was tense, and panic or a riot was more than a mere possibility. However, the police were able to cajole the demonstrators into leaving the floor before serious injury occurred. Evans v. State Bd. of Agriculture, 325 F.Supp. 1353 (D.Colo. 1971).
Eight years later, the Church lifted the ban on blacks holding the priesthood.