CHEYENNE – In October 1969, 14 African American football players were dismissed from the University of Wyoming football team for asking for permission to protest racism.
The players, who came to be known as “The Black 14,” wanted to wear black armbands during a game with Brigham Young University to protest a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy barring African Americans from the priesthood. BYU is operated by the LDS Church.
The decision of then-coach Lloyd Eaton, supported by the university’s board of trustees, led to a lengthy court case, Williams v. Eaton, that pitted free speech against separation of church and state. All but four of the players never played college football again, and many left the university altogether.
“By asking to do this, they were exercising their First Amendment rights, which says you have the right to protest,” Wyoming’s “We the People” state coordinator, Matt Strannigan, told fifth-grade students from throughout Cheyenne on Wednesday. “Above all else, that’s a citizen’s right.”
Hundreds of fifth-graders participated in “We the People” hearings this week at Cheyenne’s Meadowlark Elementary. Students demonstrated their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and its role in shaping the nation to volunteer judges from across the community, including state legislators, local attorneys and members of the military.
There are no official winners of this “We the People” event, just students showcasing what they’ve learned this year.
Program director Mary Bravo, a fifth-grade teacher at Cheyenne’s Hobbs Elementary, said judges learn something new every year.
“These students often know more about the U.S. Constitution than some adults by the end of the process,” she said.
“Some of our judges come back year after year because they’re so impressed by the knowledge that these kids have.”
During the presentations, students act as expert witnesses testifying in front of a congressional committee.
One group of students testified on how powers are divided among the federal government’s three branches, and gave modern examples of federalism at work.
Fifth-grader Mary Wallace said President Donald Trump’s recent veto of a resolution to end American military involvement in the war in Yemen is an example of executive branch power. She then cited examples of recent congressional overrides to illustrate legislative authority.
“Congress should have the power to override the president’s veto,” teammate Dayton Knox said. “Patrick Henry once said, ‘Your president may easily become king.’”
At the end of each presentation, judges issued their feedback.
“Memorizing something and testifying before strangers is tough, but what’s tougher is actually knowing what you’re talking about, which was really impressive,” Strannigan said.
He reminded parents that Laramie County School District 1 doesn’t require the program, and teachers who participate in it do so on their own time.
“When teachers do this, they don’t get paid any extra, and it’s more work,” he said. “They do it because kids read more, write more and learn in an authentic-made way.”