I do not live in Michigan anymore so I knew that I wouldn’t be able to catch a local screening of Black and Blue. However, the producers of the film, Stunt3 Multimedia, already have the documentary available on DVD, and I took advantage of a special offer through MVictors.com to buy the DVD with free shipping. I watched the film today and was enthralled.
For those of you who do not know, Black and Blue is the story of the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech game, where Michigan and Georgia Tech forced black Michigan player Willis Ward to sit out due to racial prejudice, and the stand that his teammate and future Speaker of the House and US President Gerald R. Ford took in support of his friend.
Black and Blue is done in Ken Burns style, with narration and music over slowly-panning still photographs, a few film clips, and interviews with experts, including Greg Dooley of MVictors, John U. Bacon, Civil Rights historian Tyran Steward, Richard Norton Smith, a prominent biographer of US Presidents who has worked at several presidential libraries and got to know Ford on a personal level, one of Ward’s grandsons Samuel Thomas, and For’d son Steve Ford. The film also includes audio and video of interviews with Willis Ward done in the 1970s. The music is all recordings of the Men’s Glee Club singing traditional Michigan songs, and Black and Blue includes many great photos of the Michigan campus of the day.
If Three and Out paints an unflattering portrait of Lloyd Carr, Black and Blue does the same for Fielding Yost, who is set up as the primary antagonist--and for good reason. Bacon talks about Yost’s racial attitudes, both known and assumed, and relates a story where Yost and football coach Harry Kipke had an intense argument over Kipke’s desire to recruit Willis Ward out of Detroit Northwestern High School. Bacon says account vary, but some say that the two men actually came to blows.
One of the most interesting parts of the documentary is that it shows some of the correspondence from Georgia Tech to Michigan, begging Yost to sit Ward out (in accordance to the practices of the time, Georgia Tech would sit out a player of “equal ability”) or cancel the game before either school received bad press over the incident. Yost made his decision over the summer, but his attempts to keep the story quiet backfired and blew up into a national story.
Black and Blue then covers the controversy, including several letters and telegrams sent to Yost and Kipke by alumni who objected to Michigan bowing to southern racism. It even includes the transcript of a meeting of the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics where the members tried to manage the scandal. Yost even hired Pinkerton Detectives to provide security to the Athletics administrators and to spy on the student groups that supported Willis Ward.
As the protests raged, doubt began to creep in that the game would be played. Even so, Gerald Ford told Harry Kipke and his father that he was quitting the team. He only decided to play when Willis Ward asked him to play the game. Though the whole team was bitter about Ward’s benching, at the 11th hour it was announced that the game would go on. In a final indignity, Yost banned Ward from the entire stadium, not just the sideline. He had to listen to the game on the radio at his frat house.
As the game started, a Georgia Tech sophomore, Charlie Prescott, started mouthing off an hurling racial remarks at the Michigan team. According to Ward, Prescott called Ford a “nigger-lover.” Ford, who was slow to anger his whole life, lost his temper. The next play, Ford and one of the guards hit Prescott so hard that they knocked him out of the game. They told Ward on Monday that they dedicated that block to him (Ward gave a big smile in the interview at the end of that story). In an excellent bit of film editing, the film ends this emotional moment with the Glee Club singing “The Victors” while panning a photo of Ford in his pre-snap position.
Unfortunately, Ford said later that the Georgia Tech game ruined the 1934 Michigan team, despite the ugly 9-2 victory against the Yellow Jackets (Michigan scored a punt return touchdown, and the lack of offense and two safeties, combined with terrible weather and the Ward scandal made for a really terrible day). Interestingly, as Michigan lost its last five games to end the year 1-7, they only scored 12 points. All 12 were scored by Willis Ward.
Black and Blue asserts that not only did the incident wreck the Michigan football program until the arrival of Fritz Crisler in 1938, it also had an obviously negative impact on Willis Ward to the point that he lost his love of athletics. Ward was the star of the football team but was a much better track athlete. He was one of the only athletes to ever beat Ohio State’s Jesse Owens on the track, and Ward was widely considered to be a favorite to win gold medals for the US Olympic team in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But the Georgia Tech game scarred him so badly that he did not want to suffer similar humiliation at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, so he refused to join the US Olympic team.
Black and Blue also covers the friendship between Ford and Ward after graduation, when Ford helped Ward campaign for office and encouraged his appointment to a judgeship. Their friendship also informed Ford’s support of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s and his public support for the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies that may have played a role in the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in favor of its legality. Also to the film’s credit, it covers Yost’s softened racial stand after the Georgia Tech game when he forced the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago (where the Big Ten was founded and where all Big Ten teams stayed when they played Northwestern or Chicago) to accept Ward as their second-ever black customer.
In the end, Black and Blue is a wonderful and interesting story about the friendship of two men, one white from Grand Rapids and one black from Detroit, who were involved in an ugly incident of racial prejudice, and how Ford used the incident to champion Civil Rights for African-Americans for the rest of his life. I knew about the Willis Ward incident before I saw Black and Blue, but I learned quite a lot. I would like to have seen some more coverage of Harry Kipke’s role and the role of University administrators in the incident, and they discuss an unpublished Michigan Daily editorial covering the incident by Arthur Miller, but do not show it (I am not sure it exists, but if it does it would have been really interesting to see). If you have the time, I highly recommend going to see it, it is very well done and it is an important but not widely-known part of Michigan football history and ultimately American history.