During yesterday’s Memorial Service for former President Gerald Ford, President George W. Bush made reference to a long forgotten incident in Ford’s life:
Long before he was known in Washington, Gerald Ford showed his character and his leadership. As a star football player for the University of Michigan, he came face to face with racial prejudice when Georgia Tech came to Ann Arbor for a football game. One of Michigan’s best players was an African American student named Willis Ward. Georgia Tech said they would not take the field if a black man were allowed to play. 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.
Georgia Tech’s action, though disgusting, was commonplace for that time period. In fact, Ward’s presence on the team violated Michigan’s own rules.
Now for the rest of the story. Michigan caved in to Tech’s demand and Ward did not dress for the game. In fact:
According to (John) Behee (author of the book “Hail to the Victors”), 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. Demoralized, Ward became disenchanted with his competition in athletics.
Ward stayed on the team and eventually earned a law degree and served as a Judge.
Attitudes at Tech and elsewhere slowly changed. Tech was to face Pittsburgh in the 1956 Sugar Bowl. Governor Marvin Griffin demanded Tech not play in the game because Pitt featured a Black player Bobby Grier. This time, the Tech campus erupted in protest:
Griffin, who died in 1982, was widely criticized by students and the news media leading up to the game. Georgia Tech students protested at the governor’s mansion in Atlanta and marched on the state capitol, burning Griffin in effigy. David Rice, a member of the Board of Regents, called Griffin’s comments “ridiculous and asinine” in an article in The New York Times. Georgia Tech’s president said that his team would not break the contract to compete in the Sugar Bowl.
Tech now awards more Engineering degrees to African-Americans than any other institution.
Hat tip to The Hive for much of this information.