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Gerald Ford: The Conflicted President on Civil Rights

Ford scored points by appointing the first black Secretary of Transportation, but then stumbled on civil rights during the rest of his time in office.
 
 
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Shortly before his boss was scheduled to give what turned out to be his last State of the Union address in 1974, a concerned Gerald Ford thought that it would be fitting for President Nixon to say a few approving words about civil rights, or more particularly about African-Americans.

Nixon's soothing words on race, Ford believed, would be good politics and a kind of reward for blacks who had not joined in the chorus of rage that swelled around Nixon over Watergate.

Ford dispatched his top aide Stanley Scott to make the request to Nixon's advisors. Scott and Ford could have spared themselves the effort. The request was quickly turned down. Later when Ford requested to be allowed to attend the funeral of the assassinated mother of Martin Luther King Jr., the White House rejected it, and a chagrined Betty Ford ended up representing Ford at the funeral. That was the one apparent difference between the Nixon and Ford. Ford had decent instincts, and was politically sensitive to civil rights. The exact traits Nixon lacked. Tapes later made public showed Nixon to be a borderline bigot who delighted in making derogatory cracks, name-calling, and tossing around racist barbs about blacks and Jews.

A few months later, the fallen and disgraced Nixon was out and Ford was in, and now the big question was would Ford show the same good graces on civil rights that he hinted at during his stint as Nixon underling? When the inevitable tests came, the accidental president shoved into the White House by default proved to be less an accident than a conflicted president. He got off to a good start, though. Whereas Nixon avoided personal contact with blacks like the plague, Ford went out of his way to cultivate good relations with civil rights leaders. A parade of them regularly trooped to the White House for meetings and events.

With much fanfare Ford scored a first when he appointed noted Philadelphia attorney William T. Coleman as the first black Secretary of Transportation. Ford even expressed mild qualms about Nixon's Southern Strategy. That meant say and do as little about civil rights as possible, tossing out racially charged code words, and aggressively courting white former Dixiecrat politicians. Ford ignored the howls from them to scrap the Voting Rights Act and asked Congress to extend the Act for five years.

But then Ford stumbled. The issue then was bussing for school integration, and by the time Ford stepped into the controversy, bussing had deeply polarized whites and blacks. Ford in the beginning walked a tight line. He made it clear that he opposed bussing and vigorously condemned the courts for imposing more bussing on local school districts. He even committed a gaffe when he appeared to express some doubts about the Brown school desegregation decision (he quickly recanted and said that he fully supported the decision). But Ford balked at going the next step and endorsing the efforts of anti-bussing firebrands that had torn up Boston to stop court ordered bussing there. He turned a deaf ear to the shouts from bussing opponents who demanded that he do more to stop bussing. There was even some talk about a constitutional amendment to ban bussing. But that was empty talk, and Ford gave no hint that he'd support it anyway.

With the 1976 presidential election looming, and Jimmy Carter as his opponent, some GOP strategists thought that Ford should totally scrap Nixon's Southern Strategy and go after the black vote. That went nowhere. Civil rights leaders pounded Ford for his bussing opposition, and vowed to work for his defeat. During the campaign, Ford did not stoop to the thinly disguised race baiting talk of Nixon, and even rejected calls to dump his pro-civil rights Vice Presidential running mate Nelson Rockefeller who sent red flags soaring in front of many white Southerners. Instead, he steered a cautious middle ground, and either said little about civil rights or uttered only bare platitudes.

Ford realized that Watergate or no Watergate, blacks loathed Nixon so much that any effort he made to reach out to black voters was doomed. "Most blacks," he quipped, "wouldn't vote for me no matter what I did." He was right. Blacks and many white Southerners crisscrossed each other when they shifted their respective political allegiances to the Democrats and the GOP. Carter got nearly 90 percent of the black vote and that spelled the difference in his narrow victory.

Though Ford was cursed with the stain of Watergate, that did not totally sink his presidential bid. His caution and timidness on civil rights and social issues also contributed mightily to his being anything more than an accidental president. In fact, three decades after his loss, an exhaustive search for his presidential record on civil rights turns up this, "no stance on civil rights."

But then again given Nixon's scarred legacy on civil rights that may not be a totally bad thing for Ford in figuring his final place in American politics and history.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.

 
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