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Cover Story

Gerald Ford, Race
& the Presidency

by Eric Freedman, Steven A. Jones and Jennifer Hoewe
January 16, 2012

(Note: Throughout American history, the relationship between African Americans and U.S. presidents has been varied and complex. Regular
Dome columnists Freedman and Jones are the authors of a new reference book, Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History, published by Congressional Quarterly Press. This article is adapted from the book’s chapter on President Gerald R. Ford.)

A quarter of a century after voters turned him out of the White House, Gerald R. Ford emerged from the quiet of retirement to publicly defend the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policy. It was 1999, and that policy was under constitutional attack in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Of all the triumphs that have marked this as America’s century — breathtaking advances in science and technology, the democratization of wealth and dispersal of political power in ways hardly imaginable in 1899 — none is more inspiring, if incomplete, than our pursuit of racial justice,” Ford wrote in a New York Times op-ed column.

“At its core, affirmative action should try to offset past injustices by fashioning a campus population more truly reflective of modern America and our hopes for the future,” the Grand Rapids-reared former president continued. “Unfortunately, a pair of lawsuits brought against my alma mater poses a threat to such diversity. Not content to oppose formal quotas, plaintiffs suing the University of Michigan would prohibit that and other universities from even considering race as one of many factors weighed by admission counselors.”

What was especially striking was that Ford — often criticized as unsupportive of civil rights as president — cited the actions not only of two of his GOP predecessors, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, but of Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

So what was Ford’s record on issues involving race and civil rights? Was he a product of his era, his conservative hometown, his political party? Or was he able to break out of those molds as president and craft a more progressive record than one would expect?

This year marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s tawdry, scandal-tainted re-election, an event that set the stage for Spiro Agnew to swap the vice presidency for federal prison and for Ford to become vice president and then president.

Ironically, Nixon’s re-election derailed Ford’s true ambition of becoming speaker of the U.S. House. Fate intervened twice: the first detour took him from his beloved Congress to the vice presidency, and the second to the White House amid national angst over Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.

It’s a good time to look back at Ford’s record on racial issues, issues that this year’s Republican presidential candidates have largely avoided in their quest to out-right each other in the primary and caucus season.

As American students, most of the history we learn focuses on official events and activities, and so will this article. But it is often the human stories that resonate most in our memories; we’ll end with one such story about Ford himself.

First, a brief recap: After an outstanding academic and athletic career at U of M, Ford turned down offers to play professional football for the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in 1935, instead choosing Yale Law School.

He interrupted his law practice when World War II erupted to join the navy, emerging as a lieutenant commander and returning home in 1946. Two years later he defeated a five-term incumbent in a Republican primary and won a West Michigan congressional seat. In 1965 he became House minority leader, a job that positioned him to become speaker — if the GOP captured the House.

In Congress, Ford supported final passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act — a point he later emphasized as president in speeches to groups like the National Baptist Convention. But he opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, among LBJ’s other domestic priorities. And although Ford backed Nixon’s run for the presidency in 1968, the Nixon administration gave little cooperation on his legislative agenda.

When Agnew resigned in a tax-and-bribery plea bargain, Ford was widely perceived as the only prospective replacement likely to obtain the required majority support in Congress. The Senate overwhelmingly approved him, including the vote of the only black senator, Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke III. The House vote was 387 to 35, with opposition from 15 black representatives and support from only one, Georgia Democrat Andrew Young Jr.

When Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, Democratic Reps. Shirley Chisholm and Charles Rangel of New York sent Ford a telegram promising to ask the black community to give the new administration a chance before judging it. The president promptly invited the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus to the White House. Caucus members had served with Ford in the House, and their relationship was wary but warmer than their relationship with Nixon had been.

A few days before the meeting, William Raspberry, the black Washington Post columnist, noted that it took Ford less than a week after his swearing-in to request a get-together with the caucus — in contrast to the 14 months it took the caucus to get a sit-down with Nixon. Raspberry wrote, “It could be an important gesture. By extending the invitation himself, and at the very beginning of his administration, [Ford] was saying: Forget the Nixon episode; forget my own legislative record. Let’s see if we can’t work together, starting now.”

Caucus members presented Ford with position papers on issues such as poverty and employment, crime, the status of black women, drugs, the military budget, voting rights, Africa and minority economic development. Their post-meeting reaction was generally cordial, although California’s Ronald Dellums expressed concern about Ford’s statements “that one of his efforts toward dealing with inflation would be restraint on federal funds and that if he saw the defense budget as sacrosanct it would mean cuts in important human domestic programs.”

Ford later recalled, “During my first two weeks in office, I made a strenuous attempt to show critics that an ‘open’ White House meant exactly that. Blacks and other minorities felt — with some justification — that Nixon hadn’t cared about their problems at all. I telephoned Rangel, who was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and invited him to bring his colleagues by. Our meeting, Rangel said later, was ‘absolutely, fantastically good.’”

Ford’s pardon of Nixon drew angry reactions from many black leaders, such as Rep. Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois, who said Ford should have waited for the Watergate special prosecutor to complete the criminal investigation. A reader of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, wrote an open letter to “Dear President Non-Elected,” saying the pardon reflected a “continuing and concerted conspiracy on the parts of our ‘highest politicians in office’ who make every effort to demonstrate that there are indeed two justices in America.”

In the months after he assumed the presidency, Ford actively presented his views on domestic policy, including civil rights and urban affairs, to African American organizations, including the National Baptist Convention, and at forums such as the White House Conference on Domestic and Economic Affairs. He used a 1975 speech at the NAACP national convention to talk about the adverse impact of the recession and inflation on low-income workers and the poor. He promised that his administration’s policy of fiscal restraint wouldn’t mean turning the country’s back on problems of employment, housing, education, transportation and health care.

Serious economic challenges hampered the Ford presidency as inflation grew and unemployment rose. Experts characterized the situation as “stagflation,” and a continuing high jobless rate among African Americans was a significant manifestation of that prolonged period of slow economic growth.

Meanwhile, the president reached out to African American audiences to sell his policies. For example, his 1975 speech to the predominantly black National Newspaper Publishers Association addressed the economy, crime, taxes, unemployment and voting rights. “Blacks in our society have too often been mentally segregated by some thinkers and planners who acted as if blacks did not have the same expectations and problems as other Americans,” he said. “I promised at the very beginning of my administration to be president of all the people, and I am keeping that pledge. The administration will not slice off a small portion of the pie and say, ‘This is enough for the 25 millions of Americans who are black.’”

Ford moved to increase opportunities for African Americans in federal service, ordering agency heads to take necessary steps to achieve that goal. John Calhoun, the president’s special assistant for minority affairs and director of media relations, described his own role as “doing battle daily,” such as pushing the Defense Department to open “more and higher positions to qualified minorities and women, and rapid response to grievances.” At higher levels, Ford named the nation’s second black cabinet secretary, William Coleman Jr., for the Transportation Department, and the first black Air Force four-star general, Daniel “Chappie” James, who became commander of the North American Air Defense Command.

No civil rights issue drew more attention and generated more national divisiveness during his presidency than the controversy over court orders requiring busing to desegregate public schools — what Ford and other critics labeled “forced busing.”

The president was often asked about his position on this issue. He told questioners that he supported school integration on constitutional and moral grounds. In the House, he had voted for legislation to deny federal funds to states that refused to follow the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision but opposed busing to achieve school integration. He maintained that stance as president, insisting that busing was a matter for local and state authorities and for voluntary action, not a federal responsibility, despite a 1971 Supreme Court ruling that authorized busing between black inner-city and white suburban schools.

Segregated housing played a major role in school segregation. When federal judges ordered officials to bus children away from neighborhood schools as a way to integrate their districts, some of those decisions became the flash points for white protests. Violence erupted in Boston and Louisville.

When whites in Boston rioted in 1974 because black students were bused to overwhelmingly white schools, Ford rebuffed the mayor’s request for federal marshals and the governor’s request for federal troops. Even so, the administration didn’t intervene in the Boston or Louisville court appeals that challenged busing orders, a move that would have appeared to reward disobedience of judicial decrees. However, shortly before the 1976 election, the administration did challenge a lower-court busing decision in a case that involved forced consolidation of school districts in Delaware.

When Ford sought a full term in 1976, he confronted strong conservative opposition within his own party and a strong primary challenge from California Gov. Ronald Reagan. In the run-up to the GOP convention, a reporter asked Ford how he planned to win black votes. “I don’t believe that one should make a specific appeal to any segment of our society for a vote on the basis of what I promise,” he replied. “I recognize that there are certain interests that one group or another may have. In the case of blacks, the minority economic assistance program, we have done well in that. We have done very well in trying to provide summer youth employment.”

In 1976, Black History Week became Black History Month. Later that year, Ford’s handling of a racially offensive comment by Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz sparked criticism of the president.

A month before the election, the press disclosed that Butz had made racially offensive comments that “coloreds” wanted only three things: satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom, although in more offensive words. Ford reprimanded Butz, who apologized and resigned a few days later. Later asked about the politically embarrassing incident, the president replied, “I think we took the appropriate action in the way we handled the Butz matter. Earl Butz did apologize. Earl Butz did get a reprimand by me.”

Ford defeated Reagan at the Republican National Convention, where the party platform called for a national urban policy, a welfare system overhaul, voting representation in Congress for the District of Columbia and enforcement of equal opportunity laws. While criticizing segregated schools as “morally wrong and unconstitutional,” the GOP platform reflected Ford’s views by opposing “forced busing to achieve racial balance in our schools” and suggested a constitutional amendment “forbidding the assignment of children to schools on the basis of race” if Congress failed to act.

With two weeks left in the campaign, Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor, debated a wide range of domestic and international issues, including the economy, voter apathy, foreign relations, Watergate, urban affairs, gun control and the environment.

Ford’s defense of his civil rights record failed to persuade a substantial number of black Democrats to abandon their traditional party allegiance. On November 2, Carter captured 90 percent of African American voters in the South.

Ford later wrote, “Despite my conviction that I had a commendable record publicly and privately on racial matters, most blacks were unlikely to vote for me no matter what I did. Southern blacks would turn to Carter because of regional pride and a common Baptist faith.” Outside the South, he continued, the GOP ticket would “be lucky to attract 10 percent to 15 percent of the black vote in the industrial Middle West.”

But as we wrote near the start of this article, that’s all part of the official record of history. We would also remember what was in Gerald Ford’s heart:

As a member of the U of M football team, he earned the status of most valuable player. Yet the most noteworthy event of his stellar college sports career was his threat to quit the team in 1934 out of fury when the visiting Georgia Tech team refused to take the field if Ford’s African American teammate played.

Long after his presidency, Ford recalled that confrontation in the New York Times column about affirmative action. He told how 30 years before the famed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama:

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.

His sacrifice led me to question how educational administrators could capitulate to raw prejudice. A university, after all, is both a preserver of tradition and a hotbed of innovation.

The incident disillusioned Ward, who also was a track and field star, about sports. He later became a judge and chaired the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Eulogizing Ford in 2007, President George W. Bush cited that episode as evidence of how the future president from Michigan displayed leadership and character when coming face-to-face with racial bias.

“He agreed to play only after Willis Ward personally asked him to,” Bush said. “The stand Gerald Ford took that day was never forgotten by his friend.”

Eric Freedman is associate professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service at Michigan State University, and Stephen A. Jones is assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. Jennifer Hoewe, a research assistant on the book project, is now a doctoral student at Penn State University.

January 16, 2012 · Filed under Features Tags: , ,

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