Racial issues heat up; BYU accused of racism, blacks get priesthood in ’70s


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    In a Sports Illustrated article, author Alexander Wolff described the athletic atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s as one in which, although open to the idea of integrated schools, many people saw allowing blacks on their football teams as ?mess[ing] with the sacraments.?

    ?Trailblazers at major universities all over the South endured on-field cheap shots, racial slurs from fans, and hate mail and abusive phone calls in their dorms,? the article states.

    On the West Coast, however, the Western Athletic Conference was caught in its own racial war and Brigham Young University was not immune to topics of racial debate and protests by opposing teams within the conference.

    Although many students at BYU didn’t see what the big deal was, web and game-program coordinator for BYU athletics Ralph Zobell said several universities picketed and protested against the university because of its perceived racism.

    Fourteen University of Wyoming football players in 1969 wanted to wear armbands protesting alleged racial policies at BYU. Because of a policy set in place by coach Lloyd Eaton that prohibited players from protesting, the football players were suspended.

    Zobell, who was a student at Wyoming at the time, said although most students were curious, some members of the university?s Black Student Union demonstrated at church buildings.

    ?They picketed the church institute of religion,? he said. ?I remember going to priesthood meeting and having to cross a picket line, and they video taped me as I went into church.?

    Negative feelings toward the church and BYU were the impetus behind the church sending to the Wyoming, then-BYU spokesman Heber Wolsey, to dispel myths about the church.

    Wolsey said explaining that there were black people in the church was a great help to him when trying to allay heightened emotions. When they asked what black person would be a member of the LDS Church, Wolsey called up Darius Gray, a member of the LDS church and an employee of KSL-TV in Salt Lake City.

    After explaining the heightened situation at Wyoming, Gray agreed to immediately fly to Wyoming and assist Wolsey in lectures and discussions.

    ?He was a tremendous asset to the church in saying why he was a member,? Wolsey said.

    Throughout the ?70s, Wolsey traveled throughout the country speaking at several colleges and communities that were concerned about church policies.

    The University of Arizona in October 1970 sent a six-member ?fact-finding committee? to determine if BYU was racist after they said ?rhetoric had escalated too far? with regards to racism and the Western Athletic Conference.

    The Daily Universe reported that the school’s committee determined BYU was not racist, but was an ?isolated institution whose members simply do not relate to or understand black people.?

    The findings were presented on Arizona’s campus the same week. Still, when BYU football players showed up at University of Arizona?s stadium a week later, they were met by 75 picketers demonstrating against racism at BYU.

    Although spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said BYU does not keep track of individuals by race and so cannot track who was the first black person to attend BYU, Zobell said there were a few black athletes during the 1970s.

    That fact still didn’t quell some schools’ anger.

    Stanford and San Jose State University both refused to play BYU in any sport because of what they called racism at BYU.

    Then in 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that blacks were allowed to receive the priesthood. The Daily Universe published a special afternoon ?Extra!? edition explaining what the revelation meant to members of the church community.

    Coverage after that announcement continued to highlight achievements of black BYU graduates including Mary Sturlaugson Eyer, who was the first black female missionary for the church. Eyer, who joined the church in 1976, told The Daily Universe she believed ?Mormons taught that blacks ? could never be anything in their church.?

    Although racial tension has subsided, Zobell said some University of Wyoming fans say the football team has never been the same since the incident decades earlier with the ?Black 14? as they had come to be known.

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