I am opposed to the forced busing of school children because it does not lead to better education and it infringes upon traditional freedoms in America.—President Gerald Ford, August 21, 1974.
Newly installed President Gerald Ford exulted that he experienced “special pleasure” upon signing the first major legislation of his new administration, HR 69, described as an “ordered and reasoned approach” to the problem of desegregation. President Ford proudly announced his basic opposition to “forced busing of school children”:
On October 12, 1973, following the resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew due to the pending federal charges of income tax evasion, longtime Michigan congressman Gerald Ford was sworn in as his successor. President Nixon reasoned that Ford’s appointment would help him conciliate Congress since Ford’s relatively low stature made it virtually inconceivable that Nixon would be impeached. Yet, the unthinkable happened as the Watergate scandal deepened culminating in the August 1974 resignation of the president.
After taking office, President Ford followed in the previous administration’s footsteps. While in October 1974 President Ford assured African American leaders of his intention to fully enforce civil rights laws, few felt reassured. Not only did the new president sign the anti-busing bill in August by early October, Ford had made it crystal clear that he would also move to restrict the court-ordered busing that had aroused fierce resistance to desegregation in many large and mid-sized urban areas. On “Face the Nation” June 5, 1976, Ford took aim at busing asserting that “[B]using itself is not a constitutional right. It is only a remedy.”
Born in July 1913 as Leslie Lynch King, the future president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, Jr., acquired his second name from his stepfather. One of the few presidents to have a childhood friend who was black and not enslaved, Ford grew up in a typical northern urban white community in Grand Rapids, Michigan where there were relatively few African Americans. Attending the University of Michigan where he became known as a football player, Ford’s roommate on road trips was Willis F. Ward, an African American who later became a Wayne County Michigan judge. A versatile athlete who also ran track, Willis became the center of controversy when the Georgia Tech school vowed not to play if he was on the field. After the coaches agreed then did not play Ward, Ford and the rest of the team played without him. Although he failed to protest Ward’s treatment, an angry Ford reportedly viciously blocked a player who had teased the team over their “nigger.” Years later, Ward called Ford “a decent guy.” After his election to the House of Representatives in 1949 Gerald Ford was regularly elected to Congress from his district. In one of the rare liberal gestures of his career, during the 1960s Ford once canceled an appearance at a big fund raising event for Republicans in Natchez, Mississippi after learning blacks were excluded.
More typical was the Ford opposition to bipartisan open housing legislative that drew criticism from the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell who termed Ford’s opposition “disgraceful,” accusing him of being in cahoots with South Carolina’s Senator Strom Thurmond. In his defense, Ford lamely cited “technical problems” with the legislation. While his real motives involved the politics of playing to the sentiments of his white constituency in the suburbs and the real-estate lobby. Ford himself defended his position by noting that sixty percent of his constituency was against open housing. Groping for a more solid justification for his opposition, Ford claimed that he shared “the objectives of open housing” but here the question was “procedure” not “principle.” Ford “reassessed” his opposition following a revolt of Republicans against his leadership on this issue. In voting for the open housing legislation he said, “[O]n balance the desirable portions were greater and more significant than the undesirable ones.”
As president, Gerald Ford was a determined foe of busing, carefully crafting a stance designed to win over a large portion of the white electorate. For this reason, Ford’s response to the August 1975 criticism of his civil rights policies by the U. S. Civil Rights Commission openly declared his opposition to “forced busing.” In May 1976, Ford took his opposition to a higher level by ordering the Attorney General to find a test case on busing for school desegregation. He disputed contentions that his position on busing encouraged illegal resistance to the method of educational desegregation. At the same time, Ford defended the right of parents to educate their children at segregated academies. In June 1976, President Ford sent legislation to Congress designed to “safeguard domestic tranquility and the future of American education” by limiting busing. The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins attacked this move as a “craven, cowardly, despicable retreat.”
President Ford cultivated anti-black racial sentiment in his effort to get reelected. He was largely successful in this endeavor despite losing a close election to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. During his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president, Ford sought white votes by railing against the “free-spending majority on Capitol Hill.” He boasted that as president he vetoed fifty-five times “extravagant and unwise legislation” saving taxpayers billions of dollars in the process. If reelected he pledged to make massive budget cuts accompanied by a tax cut. Yet, his trump card intended for the white voter remained his opposition to busing. Ford stressed the key difference between his position and that of the Democrats on this issue:
I called for reasonable constitutional restrictions on court-ordered busing of schoolchildren, but the other party’s platform concedes that busing should be a last resort. But there is the same problem--their own Congress won’t act.
Ford also hammered away on the issue of crime, increasingly connected to African Americans in the public’s consciousness.
President Gerald Ford’s gross violation of one of the basic assumptions of the American establishment during the Cold War perhaps accounted for his narrow loss to Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia in the 1976 presidential campaign. During his nationally-televised debate with Carter, Ford’s critical error was uttering, “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” The narrow victory of Jimmy Carter, 297 to 241 electoral votes, and by 40,827,394 to 39,145,977 popular votes brought a Democrat back to the White House for the first time since Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.