The Time Pres. Gerald Ford Took A Stand For His Black U of M Teammate Willis Ward
This is a great story on so many levels. It's the time former President Gerald Ford took a stand for his University of Michigan football teammate Willis Ward.
It's 1934, with Michigan coming off two straight conference championships, riding a 22-game winning streak, but now they're struggling badly in 1934. They win only one game. More on that coming up.
Willis Ward enrolls at Michigan in 1932. He excels at track. He wins the NCAA high jump title as a freshman. The following year he decides to tryout for football. You have to remember just how different things were back then. In the whole 40 year (at that time) history of Michigan football, only one Black man had played there. Ward would be the second. Ward ends up starting every game and is runner-up for the Big Ten Athlete of the Year Award. This is back when the Big Ten was the football conference.
Now it's 1934, and Ward and Ford become roommates and friends (whites rooming with blacks was unheard of back then), but the Wolverines are going through a season to forget. Except for game three on the schedule.
"Leading up to the match up in Ann Arbor, Georgia Tech football coach and athletic director W. A. Alexander indicated that he would refuse to allow his team to take the field if Michigan allowed Ward to participate. In fact, Alexander wrote a letter to athletic director Fielding Yost a year prior asking what was going to be done about Ward, making clear that his team would not take the field if Ward played". - Sports Illustrated
Emotions were running high on campus that week before the Georgia Tech game. Michigan students are upset about rumors that Michigan administrators might give in to Tech's demands and sit Ward. Over 1,500 sign a petition, others threaten worse if Ward doesn't play. Ultimately, Michigan caves and sits Ward. Ford was furious, and threatens to sit, too. Teammates finally convinced him to play and Michigan won its only game that season 9-2. Only 20,000 fans showed up at the Big House.
(Douglas Smith via YouTube)
But the incident left an indelible mark on Ford, watching his friend forced to watch from the press box. He said it shaped his whole outlook on race that "led me to question how educational administrators could capitulate to raw prejudice."
Ward went on to law school and became a judge in Detroit. Ford was President from 1974-1977. Like most of the "Greatest Generation", neither man talked much about it. But the story came full circle in 2008,
"there was a contentious debate in the Michigan state legislature about whether Gerald Ford should have a statue in the U.S. Capitol rotunda as a representative of Michigan. The sticking point was that Ford would be replacing noted abolitionist Zachariah Chandler, and Ford's civil rights history became an issue. `A young Democratic senator stood up and told the story of Willis Ward,' Steve Ford said. The speaker was Ward's grandson, Buzz Thomas. The vote for Ford was quiet and unanimous. - USA Today