Ford, Harold E. Sr 1945–
Harold E. Ford, Sr 1945–
Political Career Marred by Scandal
Harold E. Ford, Sr. served eleven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1974 to 1996. He was the first African American elected from the state of Tennessee to serve in Washington, and one of a new, younger generation of Democrat-Party lawmakers that e-merged as a significant political force in the mid-1970s. Later in his career, Ford became a key policymaker while chairing one of the subcommittees of the House Ways and Means Committee, and was an early bipartisan supporter of welfare reform. His son, Harold Jr., succeeded him in his seat representing Tennessee’s 9th Congressional district in Memphis.
Born on May 20, 1945, in Memphis, Ford earned an undergraduate degree from Tennessee State University in 1967 and an M.B.A. from Howard University. He joined his family’s Memphis funeral-home business as a vice president and manager in 1969, and became involved in the city’s political life. After serving a stint in Tennessee’s lower house, Ford beat out a five-term Memphis Republican, Dan Kuykendall, for the House seat by just under 600 votes in November of 1974. These national elections were heralded as evidence of a sweeping change in American political life: dissatisfied with the scandalous Republican White House of Richard A. Nixon—followed by a vice president who took over and then pardoned the disgraced leader—Americans voted into office several first-time candidates in record numbers that year. Many were political newcomers as well as women and minorities, and the 92 new legislators were “somewhat more liberal than their predecessors, and, above all, determined to remake Congress in their own younger, more open and accountable image,” wrote Robert Reinhold in a New York Times article a few weeks after the election.
Political Career Marred by Scandal
At 29, Ford was one of the youngest House members at the time. He handily won re-election ten more times, and became a well-known figure in his Memphis hometown. In the House, he chaired a subcommittee of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. This main committee, guided by the article of the U.S. Constitution stipulating that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,” concerns itself with legislation responsible for bringing in and disbursing revenue in several large areas of the federal budget, including health, human resources, and Social Security. Ford chaired the subcommittee on human resources, which dealt with federal welfare programs and unemployment benefits. By the mid-1980s, he had become one of the leading Democratic supporters of the push to reform the welfare system.
Ford’s House career, however, was marred by a political scandal, and in 1987 he was forced to give up his subcommittee chair post in the wake of a Justice Department indictment. He was charged with conspiring to commit mail, bank, and tax fraud along with a pair of brothers from Knoxville, Tennessee, C.H. and Jacob F. Butcher. The Butchers had once been powerful local players as owners of a string of banks in Tennessee and Kentucky, but their business empire collapsed and both went to prison on bank fraud charges. Ford’s name was discovered as the recipient
At a Glance…
Born on May 20, 1945, in Memphis, TN; son of Newton Jackson and Vera (Davis) Ford; married Dorothy Jean Bowles, February 10, 1969; children: Harold Eugene Jr., Newton Jake, Sir Isaac. Education: John Gupton College, AA, 1968; Tennessee State University, BS, 1967; Howard University, MBA. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Ford and Sons Funeral Home, vice president and manager, 1969-; Tennessee State Government, representative, 1970-74; U.S. House of Representatives, representative from Tennessee’s 9th Congressional district, 1975-96.
Memberships: National advisory board, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; board member, Metropolitan Memphis YMCA; Alpha Phi Alpha; chair, Black Tennessee Political Convention; trustee, Fisk University, Rust University.
Awards: Named Outstanding Young Man of the Year, Memphis Jaycees, 1976; Outstanding Young Man of the Year, Tennessee Jaycees, 1977; named Child Advocate of the Year, Child Welfare League of America, 1987.
Addresses: Office —c/o N. J. Ford and Sons Funeral Parlor, Inc., 12 S. Parkway West, Memphis, TN 36109-1635.
of questionable transactions that authorities claimed were actually political bribes. Justice Department officials asserted that the secret deals dated back to 1976, and hinted that one 1978 transaction was a payment made in exchange for Ford’s endorsement of Jacob Butcher’s candidacy for Tennessee governor.
Ford, facing a maximum 95-year prison term, claimed no wrongdoing on his part, and asserted that the fund transfers had been standard business loans made to his family’s Memphis funeral home. But Justice Department attorneys pointed out that the nearly $1.5 million in disputed transactions did not seem to have repayment terms, and indeed had been moved around to different financial institutions over the years, seemingly to avoid scrutiny by bank examiners. Ford’s trial was originally slated to be held in Knoxville, but he objected and successfully argued that it should take place in his hometown, not in the largely white, predominantly Republican city far on the other side of the state. Ford and his supporters believed the venue was symbolic of what some called a Reagan Administration political witchhunt against the Democrats. Writing some years later on the matter, New York Times journalist Peter Applebome described Ford’s legal troubles as “a riveting blend of law, politics and race.”
Case Dragged on for Years
Ford’s first trial, held in Memphis, resulted in a hung jury in March of 1990. Eight black jurors had favored acquittal, while the four whites impaneled had voted to convict him. Prosecutors for the case claimed that because of Ford’s political profile—linked with that of his politically active brothers and the family funeral-home business as well—it was impossible to cull an impartial jury from the Memphis area. The city was predominantly black, with a 55 percent majority, and the Ford name was a well-known one in town. As one of Memphis’s representatives in Washington, Ford had a long history of taking on sensitive political issues and standing up for his constituency. Conversely, his advocacy on minority and civil rights issues had given him a less favorable reputation in other quarters of the city. “Among many whites in the Memphis area, Mr. Ford not only symbolizes black political power but also many of the tensions and confrontations that accompany transitions from white to black political dominance,” noted New York Times writer Ronald Smothers in an article about the case.
A second trial was planned, and prosecutors asked to have the venue changed to suburban Jackson, a predominantly white community about 80 miles from Memphis. A judge okayed the motion, and the jury selected from that community was entirely white. Ford claimed racial bias, and the Congressional Black Caucus agreed with him. The influential group of African American lawmakers issued a statement that read, in part, that the jury-selection process for the second trial “establishes in the minds of many a double standard of justice which is blind to the impact of racial prejudice and blatantly unfair in its application,” according to a New York Times report by David Johnston.
Ford’s second trial coincided with the first weeks of the first Clinton Administration, and this time the Justice Department stepped in and ordered new jury selected; that order was later overturned, however, by a federal judge. In an odd twist, Ford’s fate had links to the Whitewater investigation and the independent investigation against Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, regarding improprieties in a real-estate deal in Arkansas some years before. The new associate attorney general, Webster Hubbell, was reported in the news to have been a key figure in the order from the Justice Department that called for a new jury in the Ford trial. Hubbell, a former Arkansas law partner of Hillary Clinton, later served 15 months in prison after the Whitewater investigation.
Acquitted of All Charges
At the onset of the trial in April of 1993, Ford was briefly hospitalized with chest pains. In the climate of tension following the Los Angeles riots incited by the 1992 Rodney King verdict, Memphis was polarized over his case. Battle lines were clearly drawn along racial demographics, and a group of Memphis ministers even warned that violence might erupt. In speaking about the possible outcome of the trial, Mayor Willie H. Herenton urged citizens to “not engage in any activities that could possibly further divide or harm our city,” according to the New York Times. Ford criticized the federal judge, Jerome Turner, who had overturned the Justice Department order calling for a new jury to be seated. “If we are truly to become one nation, to be integrated … then we cannot allow the demands of racially fixed juries to invade our jury system of random selection,” Turner wrote in his opinion, another New York Times article noted. Ford, in response, criticized Turner and compared him to the 1968 mayor of the city, who dealt harshly with a sanitation workers’ strike and stoked racial tensions which led indirectly to the assassination of civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ford’s trial even threatened the city’s bid to have the National Football League choose it as a possible site for an expansion team; a coalition of ministers and Ford supporters discussed starting petition to ask the NFL to bypass Memphis in its selection process.
In the end, Ford was acquitted of all charges by a jury of eleven whites and one African American, and his supporters cheered his appearance outside the courthouse that day. He returned to his chairing of the Ways and Means subcommittee, and to the welfare-reform issue. He told Washington Times journalist J. Jennings Moss: “I believe now we’re going to have to replace the welfare system with a [public] jobs program.” He announced his retirement from the House in 1996, declaring as well his intention to devote himself to making Memphis a better place to live. “I want to go out on top,” a report in Jet quoted him as saying. “I want to come back home to Memphis and be apart of this city.” His son, Harold Jr., ran for and won the same seat at age 26, just after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School. Ford and his wife Dorothy, married since 1969, also have two other sons.
Economist, August 18, 2001.
Jet, May 6, 1996, p. 6; December 10, 2001, p. 10.
New York Times, November 6, 1974, p. 33; December 14, 1974, pp. 31, 46; April 25, 1987, p. 39; April 11, 1993, p. 20; February 23, 1993, p. A16; February 26, 1993, p. B16; February 28, 1993, p. 22.
Washington Times, April 16, 1993, p. A1; October 29, 1993, p. A1.
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