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Future president Gerald R. Ford stood up for teammate against racist policy

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Courtesy Photos | University of Michigan Bentley Historical LibraryTeammates, roommates, friends: Gerald Ford (48) threatened to quit the University of Michigan football team in 1934 if fellow Wolverine Willis Ward (61) was benched against Georgia Tech because of the southern school’s refusal to play against black players.

Just two weeks into its 1934 season, the University of Michigan football team faced mounting adversity.

The Wolverines had been shut out by teams from the University of Chicago and Michigan State, and a home game against Georgia Tech loomed. But off the field, athletic director Fielding Yost had a decision to make.

The Yellow Jackets still observed the Jim Crow laws of the South, frowning upon the participation of black athletes within their program. They frowned upon lining up against them, too.

Georgia Tech publicly refused to meet the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium if Yost and head coach Harry Kipke sent out Willis Ward, the team’s star end. But Ward was no ordinary end. In his track career, he bested Ohio State’s Jesse Owens in the 100-yard dash and was a three-year starter for the football team. Ward also was black.

Similar incidents had occurred across the Midwest in games pitting teams from opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon line. But the controversy gathered steam in Ann Arbor as local protesters and news outlets aired opinions on the topic.

The story, slated to be part of a film documentary, is a demonstration of racial equality — one that would
go on to shape policy at U-M and across the United States — when Ward’s
close friend and teammate loudly protested what he called “raw prejudice.”

That teammate was Gerald R. Ford.

The stuff of legend

At Ford’s funeral services on Jan. 2, 2007, President George W. Bush eulogized the Grand Rapids native and nation’s 38th president with a speech that featured a segment on the two former U-M teammates.

“Gerald Ford was furious at Georgia Tech for making the demand, and for the University of Michigan for caving in,” Bush said. “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.”

And while many who heard the speech knew of Ford’s political views and how he assumed the presidency in a tumultuous post-Watergate era, few knew the story of Willis Ward.

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