Sunday, January 15, 2012

Unsung Heroes of Civil Rights

The big picture of how African-American struggled for civil rights goes back over a 150 years. Following the emancipation proclamation in 1863, there was a long-term upward trend in civil rights for Blacks in the United States. But these advances were sadly negated during the "progressive era" in which President Woodrow Wilson introduced segregation into federal departments which had been desegregated, an era in which states in the deep south abandoned the Republican party which had not only opened civil rights to the African-Americans, but which had seen Blacks elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives, and an era in which literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses were introduced specifically in order to remove African-American voters from the political process.

Because of these setbacks, the advancements which Blacks had made from 1863 to the 1890's had to be made all over again. The second wave of the civil rights movement would have to earn those same rights a second time.

The courage and perseverance of a long list of people made it possible for Blacks to claim, a second time, their civil rights. Among those who created space for African-Americans to enjoy full participation in the governing process were Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, Clarence Thomas, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Colin Powell, and Gerald R. Ford.

President George W. Bush explains President Ford's role:

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.
The noble character and ethical integrity which caused Ford to champion civil rights for Blacks also caused him to demonstrate honor in other segments of his political career. President Bush continued:
Gerald Ford showed his character in the uniform of our country. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, Gerald Ford was an attorney fresh out of Yale Law School, but when his nation called he did not hesitate. In early 1942 he volunteered for the Navy and, after receiving his commission, worked hard to get assigned to a ship headed into combat. Eventually his wish was granted, and Lieutenant Ford was assigned to the aircraft carrier, USS Monterey, which saw action in some of the biggest battles of the Pacific.

Gerald Ford showed his character in public office. As a young congressman, he earned a reputation for an ability to get along with others without compromising his principles. He was greatly admired by his colleagues and they trusted him a lot. And so when President Nixon needed to replace a vice president who had resigned in scandal, he naturally turned to a man whose name was a synonym for integrity: Gerald R. Ford. And eight months later, when he was elevated to the presidency, it was because America needed him, not because he needed the office.

President Ford assumed office at a terrible time in our nation's history. At home, America was divided by political turmoil and wracked by inflation. In Southeast Asia, Saigon fell just nine months into his presidency. Amid all the turmoil, Gerald Ford was a rock of stability. And when he put his hand on his family Bible to take the presidential oath of office, he brought grace to a moment of great doubt.

In a short time, the gentleman from Grand Rapids proved that behind the affability was firm resolve. When a U.S. ship called the Mayaguez was seized by Cambodia, President Ford made the tough decision to send in the Marines - and all the crew members were rescued. He was criticized for signing the Helsinki Accords, yet history has shown that document helped bring down the Soviet Union, as courageous men and women behind the Iron Curtain used it to demand their God-given liberties. Twice assassins attempted to take the life of this good and decent man, yet he refused to curtail his public appearances. And when he thought that the nation needed to put Watergate behind us, he made the tough and decent decision to pardon President Nixon, even though that decision probably cost him the presidential election.

Gerald Ford assumed the presidency when the nation needed a leader of character and humility - and we found it in the man from Grand Rapids. President Ford's time in office was brief, but history will long remember the courage and common sense that helped restore trust in the workings of our democracy.

There is a connection between Ford's demand for racial equality in the 1930's, his support for civil rights in the 1960's, and the total fabric of his political career. Ford was a member of the House of Representatives when, as a Republican, he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, against the opposition of the Democrat Party, and the Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower. Likewise, Ford and the Republicans overpowered the Democrats in Congress to pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Gerald Ford and President Eisenhower crafted powerful legislation to bring about equality and full participation in the governing process for African-Americans.