Every now and then, at our darkest hours, humanity hits a Hail Mary that lifts your soul. In 2020, a year of pandemics, job loss, racial strife, wildfires and a rancorous election, Wyoming’s Black 14 and the Mormon Church are back in the news again.
“I think it proves that, if you just hold a hand out to people, people will grab it,” former Cowboys lineman Mel Hamilton told me Wednesday from his home in South Carolina. “I think what it says is that anything can be overcome, if you just open your heart and open your mind and reach out to people.”
Open hearts? Open minds? Reaching out? After this week?
“This world is going crazy,” Hamilton laughed.
If the headlines of the last 48 hours shredded your confidence in your fellow man, then dig this:
Some five decades after Hamilton and 13 of his Black teammates were kicked off the Wyoming football team for protesting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most of those same former Cowboys, now in their 70s, are joining forces with the LDS to combat hunger.
“We were talking about food insecurity around the country and talking about our legacy and what we really want people to know about the Black 14,” Hamilton explained. “That we were more than just football players. We were citizens concerned about other citizens.”
To that end, nine of the 11 surviving members of the Black 14 got together to launch a non-profit. As they watched the preceding seven months of politics, flames and COVID-19 break hearts, the old Pokes decided to try and do something about it. Hamilton, whose son converted to the Mormon faith, has developed a number of contacts within LDS leadership over the years. The church even invited him and his wife to Salt Lake City last winter.
When the Black 14’s philanthropic arm started looking around for a partner with whom they could launch a nationwide food drive, Hamilton reached out to Gifford Nielsen, the former NFL quarterback who’s now an elder with the LDS church. Nielsen asked him to submit a proposal, which was accepted.
“We chose the cities where we wanted food to go,” Hamilton explained, “and the rest is history.”
The church is supplying and distributing roughly $500,000 worth of non-perishable food, to be delivered just before Thanksgiving. There’ll be at least nine separate consignments across the country — including a 40,000-pound load in Denver, at a site to be determined. They’ve secured a truck and a tentative drop date: Nov. 16.
“We’re not going to lay our hats on the Black 14 revolt at the University of Wyoming,” said Hamilton, whose revolt in October 1969, a protest aimed at BYU and the LDS, made he and his teammates civil rights icons.
“We want people to say, ‘You know what? You know those guys? Those guys fed people. Those guys cared about people.’”
All people. Black. White. Red. Blue. Hamilton, who was raised Catholic in South Carolina and Nebraska, has friends from all corners of the religious and political spectrum.
His son Malik, while studying culinary arts at Utah State, met and fell in love with a girl of the LDS faith and eventually joined the congregation himself. An ironic twist, given that it was the same church that his father had once protested for its stance against Blacks in the clergy.
“Who knew I was fighting for my son, way back then?” Hamilton said of the LDS, which reversed its position on Black priests in 1978.
“A lot of people think of us as bad, that we ruined the (Wyoming) program and we caused a lot of grief for Brigham Young. That’s all collateral stuff that we had no intention of doing.
“We didn’t want to ride into the sunset with that over our heads. We wanted people to know that there was more to us than just that. And we want our legacy to be one of bringing people together and helping people.”
Who says we can’t all get along? If the guys in the black armbands and the leaders of the LDS church can unite for a common cause, surely there’s hope for the rest of us. Even in this crazy world.
“Oh, you can always hope,” Hamilton said.
Then he chuckled. Softly. “You can always hope.”