[Ed October 20, 2014. In honor of the 80th anniversary of the Michigan-Georgia Tech game played on October 20, 1934, a repost on the campus protests leading up to this low point in Michigan football lore. Original posted April 2009.]
The early 1930s are a fascinating stretch in Michigan football history and I’ve written much on the highs and lows of that period in eBay Watch and elsewhere. A relative recently asked me which story from Michigan history was the most interesting to me, and the first thing that came to mind was the Willis Ward incident of 1934. I’ve hit on it in Hail to the Victors 2008, in a few posts here, in a guest post on mgoblog, and even on WTKA radio with John U. Bacon.
Here’s a quick debrief on the controversy leading up to the game with Georgia Tech, as summarized in my mgo-guest post from earlier this year:
During the miserable 1934 season, controversy erupted prior to the scheduled game against Georgia Tech as the Yellow Jacket officials made it clear they would not take the field against a black player. Protests ensued on campus and within the team (it’s rumored that [Gerald] Ford threatened to quit). I’ve read that future famous playwright Arthur Miller, who was on the Daily staff at the time, tried to intervene. Eventually the game was played without Ward and resulted in a 9-2 Michigan win. [For more, here’s a Daily article from 1999, and Ward’s Wikipedia page.]
One correction: I don’t think Miller was on the Daily staff in 1934 (he’s not listed on the directory in the ‘34 paper) although he did write for the Daily during his stay at Michigan and apparently did try to intervene with the Georgia Tech players. Ward’s Wikipedia entry cites a story from a Miller biography explaining the future playwright’s role in the drama:
In his biography of Miller, Enoch Brater noted that Miller had friends from Arkansas who knew one of the Georgia Tech players. Brater described Miller’s involvement this way: “Remmel [Miller’s friend from Arkansas] took Miller with them to meet with members of the team, to protest but also to appeal to the athletes’ sense of fair play. ‘Miller was right in the middle of this’, Remmel recalls. Not only did the visiting team rebuff ‘the Yankee’ Miller ‘in salty language’, but they told him they would actually kill Ward if he set one foot on the Michigan gridiron. ‘The Georgia Tech team was wild.’ Miller was furious. He ‘went immediately to the office of the Michigan Daily and wrote an article about it, but it was not published.’
It’s a fascinating story and as I mentioned as an mgo-guest, it deserves a full documentary or movie. One of the reasons I don’t think it’s been talked about very much is that the events didn’t exactly put Georgia Tech or Michigan in a favorable light, as Ward didn’t play in the game.**
Despite mentioning the story in a few places, I really haven’t taken a deep dive. I recently stopped by the Bentley Library and looked through some of the pages of The Daily in the days around the October 20, 1934 game against the Yellow Jackets.
As a student paper should do, their words focused on the situation on campus and it’s a pretty interesting tale. Upon learning of the demand by Tech that Ward not play in the game, a group of students formed the ‘Ward United Front Committee’ and collected 1,500 signatures supporting their cause. The petition read:
“We, the undersigned, declare ourselves unalterably opposed to the racial discrimination evidenced in the proposed exclusion of Willis Ward from the Georgia Tech game. We support the slogan: Either Ward plays or the game must be cancelled.”
The United Front even reached out to quarterback Benny Friedman, who was coaching at the City College of New York at the time, hoping the legend would tender a statement in support of the cause.
The group scheduled a meeting for the Friday night (10/19) before the game, a time typically reserved for pep rallies. The Daily wrote the meeting was called with “the purpose of crystallizing sentiment on the Ward affair.”
The meeting, held inside the packed Natural Science Auditorium, was ugly. Daily writer Bernard Weismann described the scene:
Smoldering feelings on the question of Willis Ward’s participation in the Georgia Tech game burst into flame last night at what was probably the wildest and strangest Friday night rally in Michigan’s history.
Speakers on both sides of the debate tried to weigh in on the controversy only to be heckled by the other side. The chairman of the event, Abner Morton, took the stage but was overwhelmed by “boos, clapping and ‘wisecracks’”.
Next up was a professor named Harold J. McFarlan who was forced to dodge “coins that were tossed at the speaker” along with the catcalls, and eventually he just walk off stage. Morton then returned and challenged his hecklers to bring up a representative to speak their piece, which prompted “taunts of ‘yellow’” from the other side of the crowd.
Finally someone from the opposition group stepped up and argued that it wasn’t right to require Ward to play especially if he could be injured by the Tech players, and further, that the coaches had earned the right to say whether Ward should be exposed to potential harm. The shouts and taunts from the crowd continued.
Breaking the hysteria was a gent named Sher Quraishi (fact: he’s the founder of that co-op house on State Street that stands today) who decided to tear everyone a collective new one:
[Quraishi] was the first to obtain a semblance of attention from the entire audience. He branded the audience a “bunch of fools,” unable to learn from the mistakes of others. “You with the advantage of a university education can’t even allow a meeting to be held until you are bawled out.”
Snap! Things settled down after that and many left the meeting before it concluded. Those who stayed agreed to formally protest the scheduling of the Jackets by the the university’s Board in Control of Athletics.
The day of the game The Daily printed quotes from the key administrators in the athletic department. Legendary coach and acting athletic director Fielding Yost told reporters, “I haven’t anything to do with it,” when asked whether Ward would play. Chairman of the Board of Athletics Ralph Aigler echoed the sidestep as well, saying, “In the 22 years I have been a member of the athletic board, I have never had anything to say about who played; I am not going to begin now.”
Ward himself was reached and referred the questions to coach Harry Kipke saying, “I haven’t anything to say about it, you had better call the coach.” An attempt to get a comment from coach Kipke at his home and at Barton Hills Country Club (where the team stayed before the game) failed.
A deal was struck before the game, and we know that Georgia Tech coach Bill Alexander agreed to hold out his regular starting end Emmett ‘Hoot’ Gibson. There are a few accounts describing an all-night debate between Alexander and Yost (although Yost is incorrectly referred to as Michigan’s coach in many versions), and I’ve also heard that Gibson never forgave his coach for agreeing to such a deal.
There are various accounts in his Wikipedia entry as to where Ward resided during the actual game. The Daily is pretty specific: he watched the game from the press box, sheltered from the “downpour which started with the opening kickoff and continued intermittently all afternoon.” The Chicago Tribune also placed Ward and Franklin Lett ( another African American who is on the extended 1934 team roster but not in the team photo) in the press box, specifically within the “broadcasting booths.”
Several beautifully composed letters were printed in the Daily in the days after the game, generally venting their disgust over the entire incident: from the behavior on the students, to the actions of the athletic department for scheduling this game, to the Michigan Daily for its coverage and editorials.
Here’s an excerpt of one student’s view of the Friday meeting, describing some of the behavior as “Hitleristic” (keep in mind this was 1934):
One note, submitted by five students, was particularly poignant. It blasted The Daily for its coverage of the controversy. Two small excerpts, here’s the first:
And in further ripping the Daily, a few excellent questions for the athletic department:
Despite the sharp criticism of The Daily leveled by the missive above, the paper definitely did a fine job covering the temperature on campus that week. Should they have dug deeper into some of the questions raised in the letters? Probably, but I’m not clear on the type of access or control that they possessed at the time. I don’t know if Arthur Miller’s draft piece still exists, but it would be fascinating to see what he wrote after facing the Tech players. Was it squashed by the Daily brass?
“It was the peculiar characteristic of the Ward-Georgia Tech matter that everyone who touched it did so only to lose in respect and esteem.”
The auction of the Ward photo ends April 30th.
**Update: This point (that we don’t hear about the stories where ‘good’ didn’t triumph) expressed better by The Joe Cribbs Car Wash:
For the past few years, one of the most tried-and-true feature story tactics from the likes of ESPN has been the “team from the earlier part of the century heroically stands up against discrimination.” I mean, who doesn’t love one of those stories? Easy journalistic money.
Of course, you don’t ever hear about about the stories where teams had the chance to take a similar stand and didn’t..