Civil Rights Legend

The Uses of the Past ford-willis-ward.gif

“I came by my support of that year’s Voting Rights Act naturally. Thirty years before Selma, I was a University of Michigan senior, preparing with my Wolverine teammates for a football game against visiting Georgia Tech. Among the best players on that year’s Michigan squad was Willis Ward, a close friend of mine whom the Southern school reputedly wanted dropped from our roster because he was black. My classmates were just as adamant that he should take the field. In the end, Willis decided on his own not to play.”

– Gerald Ford supporting affirmative action in a 1999 New York Times Op/Ed.

Shorter Ford: U of M accommodated racists, Ford and teammates went along with reservations.

From these tender beginnings the legend of Gerald Ford, Civil Rights Pioneer has grown, helped along by the hagiographic explosion for Our Most Athletic Presidenttrademark1.gif since his death.

Ford’s role and opposition to racism grows with every telling. Son Steven Ford toured a school named for the President last ford-steve-ford-at-ford-school.jpg week, and told the tale.

“Dad was so incensed, he was going to quit football to stand up for his friend,” said Ford, adding a friend eventually convinced his father to stay with the team.”


In an earlier version of the story, Steve had Ford actually quitting the team.

bush-ford-coffin.jpg George Bush gave the full glory version at Ford’s funeral.

“Gerald Ford was furious at Georgia Tech for making the demand, and for the University of Michigan for caving in. He agreed to play only after Willis Ward personally asked him to. The stand Gerald Ford took that day was never forgotten by his friend. And Gerald Ford never forgot that day either — and three decades later, he proudly supported the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the United States Congress.”

[Bonus fun fact: Bush’s father opposed the Civil Rights Act as a 1964 Senate candidate]

Between them, Ford and Bush’s versions of history launched the legend. Others soon acclaimed Ford’s premature anti-racism, or to echoed the claim that Willis somehow excluded himself from the game. Jack “He Showered With Them” Kemp joined the parade, recycling Bush’s version.

um-paper.gif But the University of Michigan Daily looked back at the incident in 1999, before Ford wrote on it, and Ford was not mentioned. Neither was Ward’s taking one for the team.

In this version, Michigan’s caving to Georgia Tech extended to hiring spies to infiltrate and disrupt the student “United From Committee On Ward,” lest protest actually occur.

And if the Daily is correct, Willis Ward faced some severe difficulties in “deciding on his own.”

“Ward wasn’t even allowed to watch the game from the press box, or even from the bench of his own stadium. Instead, he spent the afternoon of Oct. 20 in a fraternity house.”

In a PRESIDENTSRUS first, I’ll now quote Wikipedia. wik.jpg Yes its a mess, and we’ve all enjoyed the regularly erupting editing scandals, but as others have excused themselves, it’s irreproducible results just speak to me.

And contradict much of the above.

“In 1976, Ward, then a probate court judge in Wayne County, said that Ford never mentioned the incident to him, but that Ford’s brother later told him about it.[27] “Jerry was very concerned,” Ward recalled. “His brother told me, ‘Jerry was so upset he wrote father asking him if he should quit the team. He was that angry.’” Interviewed in the 1976 election year, Ward felt Ford’s record on racial matters left something to be desired. “I can’t say Jerry’s performance there is all that I’d ask for. But he is not totally indifferent to the problem. You can’t say he’s antiblack or not concerned.”[27] [32]

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