GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — President Gerald R. Ford was the first president to acknowledge Black History Month. He didn’t create it, but he did work to bring attention to it, paving the way for future generations to celebrate.
“He showed a decency and respect for people,” Dr. Randal Jelks, a history professor at the University of Kansas said. “That decency is something that we all love and respect.”
The year is 1976, there is civil unrest, Gerald R. Ford is president and from coast-to-coast Americans are celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men, all people, are created equal and President Ford took those words to heart,” Executive Director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation Gleaves Whitney said. “He quoted those words in his speeches in the 60s and then of course in the 70s and as a congressional leader, as the minority leader, Republican minority leader in a Democratic-controlled Congress. He was a civil rights champion.”
Two hundred years of history, 200 years of being neglected and overlooked, Ford sought to finally recognize the accomplishments of African Americans. He was the first president to do so.
Whitney says Ford’s love for all Americans began in Grand Rapids.
“President Ford has an incredible track record as a civil rights leader as a president in the 1970s. But where it all starts, it goes back to two things in his youth,” Whitney said. “He chose to go to Grand Rapids South High School because it was a more diverse school. It would present a greater range of humanity to him and he wanted that experience and also his friend Willis Ward who happened to be black.
Whitney continued to explain one occurrence where Ford and Willis, teammates at the University of Michigan’s football team, were appalled to find out Georgia Tech planned to boycott their game because Willis was a black member on the team.
Ford was outraged and threatened to boycott the game.
“Willis looked at his friend Jerry and said Jerry you got to play that game. He said you go in there and you hit them extra hard,” Whitney said. “That’s exactly what the Wolverines did, and they won their first game of the season. Inspired by Willis Ward, they made a statement.”
The full validity of the event is unknown, Jelks argues it could be presidential lore.
“Part of that is mythic, but part of it is that Gerald Ford grew up with a sense of consciousness and he and Ward stayed friends for a long throughout their lives, that is fact.”
In later years, Ford would recall on the moment, calling out the weakness shown by his university in failing to stand up against racism. It emboldened him, determined to do something whenever he could. Eventually, he did.
“I think Ford was acting in character. I mean when you go back and read his stance and he’s saying that we should all know, every American should know, about the contributions of their neighbors,” Dr. Jelks said. “He wasn’t an advocate, but he was a supporter and convinced his own people that this was the right thing to do.”
Ford called on Americans to; “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Ford argued all Americans should have equal access to the American experience.
“President Ford recognized we are all equal as Americans,” Whitney said. “Not one American is more American than another American.”
“People just don’t remember that, or don’t know that because they live in their own world and that’s why President Ford tried to issue this statement to say that we have neighbors, we have citizens, we have people who go to friends with and they too are a part of this great American history,” Jelks said.
Acknowledging a history, he didn’t create, but one he did help memorialize.
“Black people made black history, negro history week then negro history month their own beginning in 1926, without the community support,” Jelks said. “Gerald Ford, in that year, did something I think is noble and I think is worth remembering that he did that.”