Seventy eight years ago this fall the U-M campus was set ablaze. Students and teachers held heated (heated as in objects and insults being hurled) debates/protests over the proper way to handle the Georgia Tech game.
You know the story by now: The Jackets visited Ann Arbor but made it known well before the game that they would only play if Michigan’s African American end, Willis Ward, didn’t participate. The saga, including background and the aftermath is documented in the documentary Black and Blue which you should own in your collection.
The largest group, the United Ward Front, was a group of students and professors with a simple demand: Ward plays against Tech or the game should be cancelled. They gathered over 1,500 signatures in support and led many of the protests (clip from the 1934 Michigan Daily to the left).
Fast forward nearly 78 years. The guys behind Black and Blue have a new petition —one urging U-M to honor Willis Ward on October 20, 2012. You can sign on here:
The are asking U-M to honor Ward on Saturday October 20, 2012 because this will be the 78th anniversary of the Georgia Tech game. On top of that, Ward would have been 100 this year and the Michigan state legislature is already expected to declare that Saturday “Willis Ward Day” throughout Michigan.
More details in the full press release:
Online Petition Urges University of Michigan to Honor Willis Ward at MSU Game on Oct. 20 – the 78th Anniversary of the Day He Was Benched Against Georgia Tech Because of His Race
ANN ARBOR, Michigan (August 27, 2012) – An online petition drive was launched today urging the University of Michigan to honor Willis Ward on Oct. 20, 2012 – the 78th anniversary of the day he was benched against Georgia Tech because of the color of his skin.
Michigan hosts Michigan State that day – on the very same day, on the very same field where Ward was banned from playing back in 1934.
The petition drive was announced by Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse, producers of the 2011 Emmy-nominated documentary “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game.”
They said the petition is in response to the reaction they’ve received from people who have seen the documentary or read about Willis Ward. The overwhelming sentiment, they said, is that U-M needs to honor Ward on the anniversary of the Georgia Tech game.
“Willis Ward was barred from Michigan Stadium because of the color of his skin on Oct. 20, 1934,” Kruger said. “As it happens, Michigan has another home game this year on that same date – Oct. 20. He was banned from Michigan Stadium on Oct. 20, and everyone feels it makes sense that he be welcomed back to Michigan Stadium on Oct. 20. We’ve heard from hundreds of U-M fans and others who have all said the same thing, and we wanted to offer this petition as a way they could make their feelings known to Michigan.”
The petition can be found at:
Kruger and Moorehouse said they’ll be spreading the word about the petition through state and national media; via the many Alumni Association chapters that have seen the film; through Facebook, Twitter and other social media; through Michigan student groups; and through African-American and civil rights organizations in Michigan and nationally. They will also be encouraging petition supporters to make calls and send letters and e-mails to U-M officials in support of the cause.
At the center of the story is a football game that took place 78 years ago. On Oct. 20, 1934, Michigan played Georgia Tech in Ann Arbor. One of the Wolverines’ best players that season was an African-American student from Detroit named Willis Ward. Jim Crow policies were a sad fact of life in those days, and Georgia Tech officials said they would refuse to play the game if Ward were allowed to play.
Michigan eventually gave in to Georgia Tech’s demands and benched Ward, setting off a wave of protests across the campus. The Wolverines won the game, 9-2, but it was their only win in a miserable season. The Georgia Tech incident destroyed the team’s morale as the Wolverines finished with a 1-7 record – the worst record in school history.
The incident remains the only time in Michigan’s proud history that an athlete was benched because of his race.
Willis Ward’s story had been largely lost to history, but it came to light again in 2011, when “Black and Blue” was released. Since then, the documentary has been seen by thousands of people at screenings around the country – primarily by Michigan alumni and fans. The film has also gotten widespread attention on TV, radio and in newspapers across the state, and Kruger and Moorehouse recently penned an op-ed piece on the event that ran in the Detroit News.
The documentary will also be airing on statewide TV on Oct. 21 (WGVU is airing at 7:30pm) this year.
In March, Kruger and Moorehouse spoke before the University of Michigan Board of Regents, urging them to honor Ward in some way. The Regents agreed, instructing Athletic Director David Brandon to come up with a suitable way to honor him. As of yet, though, no announcement has been made by U-M as to how or if they intend to honor Willis Ward.
Kruger and Moorehouse said it makes sense to honor Ward at the Michigan State game on Oct. 20 for the following reasons:
• The anniversary of the game – Oct. 20 – actually falls on a home football Saturday this year. It will be another six years before Oct. 20 falls on a Saturday again, and there’s no guarantee that U-M will have a home game on Oct. 20, 2018. It doesn’t make sense to honor Willis Ward on any day other than Oct. 20.
• Apart from anything his alma mater might be doing, Willis Ward will be celebrated and remembered throughout the state on Oct. 20 this year.
• The Michigan Legislature will be declaring Oct. 20, 2012, as “Willis Ward Day” in the State of Michigan. The resolution is being introduced in September by Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker and Rep. Bill Rogers, and is expected to gain unanimous approval.
• The documentary “Black and Blue” will be airing on statewide television on the weekend of Oct. 20. (WGVU is airing at 7:30 October 21). The PBS affiliates in Detroit and Grand Rapids have committed to airing the film that weekend, and it’s expected other PBS stations throughout the state will also pick it up.
• This year is the 100th anniversary of Willis Ward’s birth. He was born on Dec. 28, 1912. Ward passed away in 1983, but what better present for his 100th birthday?
“Everyone around the state will be learning about Willis Ward and talking about Willis Ward on Oct. 20 this year,” Kruger said. “In addition to the documentary airing on TV that weekend, it’s a good bet that every newspaper in the state and maybe even across the country will be running a story that day about the anniversary of the Georgia Tech game. We hope that the one institution that’s at the center of this story – the University of Michigan – agrees that it’s the right time to honor this amazing man.”
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