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The Civil Rights Stand Of A Young Gerald Ford

President Gerald Ford finishes giving a speech on Jan. 13, 1975. Ford was born 100 years ago Sunday.

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Aired 7/14/13

President Gerald R. Ford, the only American to serve as both vice president and president without ever being elected to either office, was born 100 years ago Sunday.

Ford will be remembered for his role in the turbulent post-Watergate era. But a little-known story from his college days might also serve to define Ford's character.

The Gerald Ford We Know

In 1973, Ford was a congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., who had risen through the ranks to become House minority leader. In those days before C-SPAN, Ford was barely known to most Americans.

But that all changed in December of that year, when President Richard Nixon selected him to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president because of Agnew's bribery scandal. By the following August, Nixon was out, and Ford inherited the Oval Office.

In one of his signature moments, Ford told the nation, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over ... Our constitution works."

That line would be followed -- barely a month later -- by another defining moment: A pardon "for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed."

It was an act of healing for Ford, but unforgivable for many.

In the White House, Ford also had to deal with a worrisome economy marked by rising inflation. Not to mention the final days of the Vietnam War. He also chose to continue Nixon's aggressive and complicated pursuit of better relations with the Soviet Union and China.

In the 1976 presidential campaign, Democrat Jimmy Carter pledged a fresh start after Watergate and government corruption. Ford lost a close election and his bid to win the presidency in his own right.

These are all familiar elements of Ford's bio. But in recent years, another interesting story has come to light, one you may not have heard.

An Early Stand For Civil Rights

A documentary film released last year, Black and Blue, explores an incident from 1934, when Ford was a football player at the University of Michigan.

Georgia Tech was visiting Ann Arbor for a game against the Wolverines, but would only play on the condition that Michigan's lone African-American player, Willis Ward, not be allowed to play. Ward was Ford's roommate on road trips.

"Jerry Ford was incensed that the University of Michigan would dare to bench one of their other star players and his good friend," says Ward's grandson, Buzz Thomas, a former Michigan state senator. "So Ford went to the coaching staff and said that if Willis Ward doesn't play, I will not play."

Ultimately, Ford did play in the game -- at Ward's request.

"It was Willis Ward then came back and urged Jerry Ford to play in that game and to excel and really lay on a good hit for him that day," Thomas says, "which, in fact, he did." That game against Georgia Tech was Michigan's only win that year.

Ward died 30 years ago after a long career as an attorney and judge in Michigan.

The story of Ward's benching is not a great moment in the school's storied football history, but people close to both men say it speaks to Ford's character.

The incident that was on Ford's mind in 1999, when he took one of the final political stands of his long life by writing an op-ed piece for The New York Times, supporting the University of Michigan and its use of affirmative action in its admissions policies. Two lawsuits had challenged that practice.

Barry Rabe, a professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in Ann Arbor, sees a direct link between the young Ford -- the football player who took a stand -- and the aging former president.

"I think that tale," Rabe says, "as a 21-year-old in Ann Arbor, leads us fast-forward to see someone who would be willing to take tough decisions that reasonable people might disagree with or raise questions about, but to act with a sense of public spirit and in the public interest."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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