On Oct. 14, 1962, police in Battle Creek, Michigan punched a 13-year-old Black youth in the jaw so hard it sent him to the hospital. Now 71, that kid has a lifetime of both discrimination and accomplishment behind him, yet he remembers the encounter vividly.
It was at a movie theater showing the new release, “Phantom of the Opera.” Someone reported a disturbance after the show and responding police unjustly targeted the boy, his 17-year old sister, her boyfriend and another Black friend.
“You, you, you — get in the car!” police yelled.
They manhandled the boyfriend, then when the 13-year-old’s sister interjected, punched her in the face.
“I jumped between them and he hit me in the jaw,” Tony McGee said, recounting his story of the night and the blow a policeman delivered.
Few know of the incident. Today McGee is better known as a Superbowl champion, media entrepreneur and a member of the Black 14 — a group of athletes who were infamously dismissed from the University of Wyoming football team in 1969 for asking coach Lloyd Eaton if they could take a stand against racism.
Tony McGee has lots of memories. They are of his many quarterback tackles he made as “Mac the Sack” during 14 years in the National Football League. They are memories of two Super Bowls, including one he helped win. They are memories of going to the movies in Battle Creek, with his sister and friends.
“We always went to the movie together,” McGee told WyoFile. On the walk home the night police beat him up, they first threw the 17-year-old boyfriend on the ground and, with a foot on his back, cuffed him.
McGee’s sister protested, he said, before police struck her and then, when he intervened, struck him, too. In jail, two police held his arms while a third “nubbed his fingers in my eyes,” McGee said. “I was crying.”
“Anthony E. McGee, 13, … was admitted to Community Hospital by a physician for treatment,” the Battle Creek Enquirer of Oct. 14, 1962, reads.
The story of the Black 14 centers on race, discrimination, power, protest and institutional cowardice. It’s a shameful episode in Wyoming’s history that holds fresh lessons 51 years on in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
For McGee, though, it is also a deeply personal story of victimization and loss — and far from the only one. McGee recalled many of his encounters with police that could have gone bad, even deadly.
As a big, Black man, 6’4”, 250 lbs., “I’ve always been a target,” he said. He was stopped without reason “I can’t tell [you] how many, many other times.”
“Any of those times,” McGee, said of the traffic stops and other hassles, “it could have been something serious.”
Decades before Kaepernick
The University of Wyoming Cowboys played Brigham Young University at BYU’s home stadium in Provo Utah in 1968, near the physical center of the Mormon faith. Cougar fans scorned and abused black members of the Wyoming squad.
“This was an everyday occurrence,” McGee said. “We’d be name-called, you’d be cheap-shotted.” Complaints to the referee elicited a “shut up and play ball” response.
The day before the BYU game in Laramie the next year, 14 Black players went to talk to Eaton about protesting the then Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy banning black men from the priesthood, possibly by wearing black armbands. Eaton fired them on the spot, with scorn and epithets.
“I got you off the streets,” McGee remembers Eaton saying. “You come from broken homes. Go back to the Gramblings and Morgan States” — historically Black colleges — he told them.
“He might as well have used the N-word,” McGee said.
Today McGee sees Eaton’s emotions reflected in the conduct of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on George Floyd’s neck.
“He was just like that policeman,” McGee said of Eaton. “Mentally he had his foot on our neck. He did not get physical [but] he wanted to hurt us mentally.”
Years haven’t faded Black-14 member and receiver John Griffin’s memories of Eaton’s comment about how the 14 could go back to Black colleges and maybe freeload on public assistance.
“My takeaway? How dare you say that,” Griffin said. If he had had the gumption at the time, he said, “I would have told Eaton ‘I’ll see you in 40 years.’”
The Black 14 had a philosophy after the incident and for several decades after the fact, Griffin said. “We were not going to let Lloyd Eaton define our lives.”
“We got degrees,” Griffin said. “We did well in our lives — corporately or independently.”
The YMCA in Denver first employed Griffin who later moved to California where he worked in the corporate world.
McGee won his Super Bowl ring with Washington and owns and runs a television sports show in the D.C. area today. It is the longest running minority sports show in the area, perhaps the country, he said.
People called the Black 14 barrier breakers, McGee said. Now they seek to forge identities as game changers. “We’re using this as a platform,” McGee said.
Activists for life
McGee has launched an initiative in five regions, including Wyoming, in which kids who buy a Black-14 T-shirt and write an essay have a chance to win a computer. T-shirt sales enable the computer purchases.
The pandemic has underscored the need for such technology, and the need to spread it through the Black community, he said. The essay topic “If I were a Black 14, what would I do?”
“They’ve got to have meaningful writing,” McGee said.
He’s also focusing on food insecurity, working out deals with pizza houses and other restaurants to both feed hungry families and support restaurants that are struggling from the pandemic shut down. The effort seeks to bind a community through mutual support.
Corporations like Kellogg’s where his father worked, foundations and high profile movers, including former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, have supported his work.
Griffin, who is retired in Denver, actively promotes a program offered by the University of Wyoming’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The Black-14 Social Justice Summer Institute was to have its inaugural session this summer, but plans were put off because of the pandemic.
The multi-day overnight sessions for high school students will use the Black 14 as a springboard to examine social justice issues, prepare black students for the rigors of college and help recruit Black students to the university.
“They’ll experience college, research life, visit with department heads, talk about their grades and get insight into college life,” Griffin said. “If they’re struggling with their grades we can help with that … show [them] how to study.”
“It takes a village, yea,” he said of the Black 14’s initiatives. “This village is going to have all colors of the rainbow to bring about change.”
When social justice institute students use the “history of the Black 14 as an entry point,” as the program’s outline states, they may easily uncover stories of oppression and racism, even though the institute’s goal is forward looking and seeking to “facilitate positive change.”
“We’ve shared stories, all of us,” Griffin said of conversations Black 14 members’ have had with each other about racism. But with the general public, “I’ve never shared the issues I had with the police department when I was a teenager.”
George Floyd and the death of other Black victims of police and racial violence changed that, he said.
“It’s time to share history,” Griffin said. “It’s time to put an exclamation point behind it.”
‘They attacked us’
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s “I witnessed a lot of things,” Griffin said. The Metro Division of the police department was particularly feared and notorious. One day police stopped teen-aged Griffin, for no apparent reason, while he was driving only a couple of blocks from his mother’s house.
Griffin was dressed in greasy overalls as he and a friend had been working on their cars.
“He saw two African American males, young males in my estimate, and he decided to harass us,” Griffin said. “I wasn’t speeding, I didn’t make any bad turns without signaling.”
The officer questioned them for, “I couldn’t tell you how long,” Griffin said. A carburetor in the back seat of the vehicle, which they showed the officer, finally convinced him of their story.
Could he have been George Floyd?
“Could have,” Griffin said. “It could have turned out much different.”
Police stopped McGee without cause many times after the Chicago Bears drafted him. He drove a Lincoln Continental Mark III. Ford’s two-door, 4,866 pound V-8 flagship defined personal luxury and couldn’t belong to a young Black guy, police thought.
“I was stopped each year at least 20 times,” McGee said all but once without cause. Actually, the second year with the Bears it was about 15 times and about 10 times in his third year as police began to recognize him, he said.
He, too, could have been a George Floyd, McGee agreed.
“It could have been different,” he said of the outcome of any of the police stops. Like the theater fracas when he was 13.
The official description of the incident at the Bijou Theater in Battle Creek in 1962, as reported in the Enquirer, differs from McGee’s account. “While the two youths and two officers were tussling, the girl jumped on the back of one officer and began to “claw” him about the face and throat,” the story reads. “Her brother [McGee] also joined in the fracas. The four were subdued and taken to the police station.”
McGee’s father Herman said police beat his son, the paper reported. The two stories collided in court.
“Nobody would believe us,” McGee said. Finally, a white man who witnessed the event told authorities “those kids were doing nothing,” McGee said.
A judge let McGee and his sister off the hook, McGee said, but didn’t want the youths to “ruin” the careers of the police involved in the incident. McGee’s sister didn’t agree, he said.
“Why shouldn’t we?” McGee recalled her saying. “They attacked us.”
The next generation
McGee’s case had a witness the court found credible — a white man. Today, the American public often witnesses injustice with their own eyes — as in the cases of George Floyd and Rodney King who was beaten 2 miles from Griffin’s mother’s house — through the lens of a video camera.
“What galvanized people [around George Floyd’s death] was the simple fact that everybody witnessed an African American gentleman being killed in real time,” Griffin said. “And so, unlike any of the other events that happened where we find out via the news a day later, a year later … we were able to witness this poor gentleman.”
Police officer Chauvin’s “couldn’t-care-less face,” added to a reality only Black people understood, Griffin said.
“This [witnessing] is unlike anything that ever happened before,” he said. “It’s been a rude awakening to a lot of people who say ‘I didn’t know this went on.’”
McGee agreed. “I think they recognize it has been covered up,” he said of white people now understanding racist behavior. “Situations have been happening — you don’t know about it.”
Black youth are responding, Griffin said. “We never knew this was happening and we’re going to stand up to what’s going on,” is what he hears them say. “The kids nowadays and folks that live in Laramie [in recent protests] are standing for something.”
College athletes across the country, 51 years later, are finally following the Black 14. They are “flexing their muscles and taking the lead in protests against racial injustice and police brutality,” Forbes writes in a Sunday overview.
At Clemson University in South Carolina, football team members organized a protest of 3,000 people in a surge of sentiment against racism that has included demands to remove the names of slave owners and racists from campus institutions.
At the University of Mississippi, standout basketball team member Blake Hinson transferred because of the state flag, which included the stars and bars in one corner. Mississippi State University running back Kylin Hill joined the protest. At Oklahoma State University, a star football running back secured an apology from a coach who wore a T-shirt promoting a far-right website.
Coaches and athletic departments from Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Jackson State University, Alcorn State University, Mississippi Valley State University and the University of Southern Mississippi protested the Mississippi flag, which the Legislature voted Sunday to scrap. Athletic conference leaders said they would not play in a state where the Stars and Bars — the Army of Northern Virginia Battle Flag — flew prominently.
Roots and branches
As the Black 14 incident produces new branches, it also has roots. McGee’s father Herman who protested about his son’s innocence back in 1962 was no shrinking violet. He worked for Kellogg’s, the ubiquitous cereal company headquartered in Battle Creek, before he died in 1966 at age 40. He advocated to get fellow Black workers into significant positions, including operating machinery, McGee said.
The year after police beat up 13-year-old Tony McGee, his father became chairman of the newly formed chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality — Battle Creek Branch. “The Negro is not an alien or a ward of the government,” the Enquirer quoted him saying. “He is part of the country, and deserves equal treatment for that reason.”
The group began picketing stores they believed should hire more Black workers, including City Food & Beverage Market where 80% of customers were Black. “We are tired of tokenism,” the paper quoted Herman McGee saying. “We are only demanding that two Negroes be employed here at this store.”
CORE sought Black representation in a city planning initiative. “Henceforth we will not sanction any program that we have no part in planning – in fact we will protest it to the utmost,” Herman McGee wrote the newspaper editor.
He picketed U.S. Rep. August E. Johansen, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when Johansen visited Battle Creek for a Republican Lincoln Day event. Herman McGee described to whites as best he could what made up the Black experience.
“This means … that the color of your skin determines whether you are arrested without justification,” he wrote in one of many letters to the editor, “whether you receive a fair trial after the arrest, where you live, where you work, your type of employment, and your opportunities for education.”
Tony McGee learned from his father, he said, recalling an elementary lesson. “It don’t matter about your color,” he said. “Everybody is equal.”
Tony McGee also learned from George Floyd.
“You heard him plead,” McGee said. Injustice against Black people, “it did not just start at that moment.
“Now,” he said, “it is time for us to move on.”
The year in the caption of the Confederate flag flying over the Wyoming-BYU game has been corrected to read 1969, not 1968. A misspelling of George Floyd’s name has been corrected. — Ed.