In 1972 Johnny Ford became the first African American elected mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama. His historic victory was heralded as a sign that a new generation of young, well-educated black politicians was stepping into leadership in the years following the civil rights movement. When he took office, he was quoted by the New York Times as saying that "the South is the new frontier for black accomplishment." Ford served as mayor until 1996, when he was elected to the state legislature. He was reelected mayor of Tuskegee in 2004.
Born on August 23, 1942, in Midway, Alabama, Ford was adopted at age four by his uncle, Charlie Benjamin Ford. They moved to Tuskegee, home of the Tuskegee Institute, which was founded in 1881 to educate the children of freed slaves. During Ford's youth the famed Tuskegee Airmen—the first all-black corps of military pilots, who had compiled a noteworthy record during World War II—were a source of both local and national pride for African Americans. Yet Tuskegee, like the rest of the South, was a deeply segregated place, and Ford attended the city's all-black public schools.
Worked for Kennedy Campaign
Ford won a scholarship to Knoxville College, a historically black school in Tennessee, where he studied history and sociology. He had hoped to become a lawyer, but after earning his bachelor's degree in 1964, he realized he was unable to afford the tuition at most law schools. He moved to New York City, where he worked for the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America, first as a recruiter in the rough Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn and later as director of all Boy Scout activities in the South Bronx. Through this job he met Robert F. Kennedy, the senator from New York, who was running for president. Ford was hired as a strategist for the campaign. "Mind you, I didn't know anything about politics," he told Ray Jenkins in the New York Times.
In June of 1968 Kennedy was shot and killed, only minutes after winning the California primary. His death came just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Ford told Jenkins that, later that night, in private, "I fell down on my knees and started praying. I wondered where America was heading."
Ford returned to New York City. But when he visited his family in Tuskegee at Christmas, he learned that his hometown had been selected for the Model Cities Program, a new federal initiative. He was hired as its executive coordinator in Tuskegee. Ford then managed Fred Gray's campaign for the Alabama House of Representatives. Gray, who had served as counsel to both Rosa Parks and King, became the first African American elected to the state house since Reconstruction.
For a time Ford worked in the Montgomery office of the U.S. Department of Justice, ensuring compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1972 he made his own run for office, becoming mayor of Tuskegee. Tuskegee occupied an unusual place in both African-American history and the South: It was essentially a college town, home to the prestigious Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University). At the time, the city had a population of eleven thousand, about 80 percent of whom were African American. The Tuskegee Institute's faculty and student body numbered around thirty-six hundred, which at the time was believed to be the largest group of professional and middle-class blacks in the South. Several African Americans had already been elected to local office in Tuskegee and Macon County.
Ford's win at the polls in October of 1972 prompted a visit from New York Times reporter Jon Nordheimer, who was intrigued by the fact that both Ford and another young African American had just been elected mayor of Alabama cities. A. J. Cooper, who had run for the office in a working-class suburb of Mobile, held a law degree from New York University. He had also worked for the Kennedy campaign. "The ceremonies," wrote Nordheimer, "symbolized the return of educated young blacks to their roots in the South's Black Belt—a dream of decades [that] saw the brightest and most talented members of each generation leave home for better economic and social opportunities in the North and never return."
A few weeks later the New York Times ran another story, "The Tuskegee Mayor and His Wife: A Very Visible Interracial Marriage," which noted that mixed-race marriages were still technically illegal in the state. Ford and his wife, Frances Rainer, a social worker from a well-connected white family in another town, had started dating during Ford's tenure with the Model Cities program. They often met in the larger city of Montgomery, about forty minutes away by car. Theirs was the first interracial marriage in Macon County. Even though antimiscegenation laws had been declared invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court three years earlier, Alabama's law was still on the books, so the newlyweds, the minister who married them, and the clerk at the county office who had issued the marriage license were subject to criminal penalties. "A lot of people marry for money," Ford told Ray Jenkins, the New York Times reporter. "A lot of people marry for class. Maybe some people marry for political reasons. But we married for love."
At a Glance …
Born on August 23, 1942, in Midway, AL; son of a hospital employee; adopted by his uncle, Charlie Benjamin Ford, at age four; married Frances Rainer (a social worker), 1970 (divorced); married and divorced two more times; married Joyce London Alexander (a judge), 2006; children: Johnny, Christopher, Tiffany. Politics: Republican. Religion: Baptist. Education: Knoxville College, BA, 1964; Auburn University, MPA, 1977.
Career: Boy Scouts of America, Greater New York Council, recruiter and supervisor, 1964-68; campaign strategist for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, 1968; Model Cities Program, executive coordinator in Tuskegee, AL, 1969-70; campaign manager for Alabama House of Representatives candidate Fred Gray, 1970; Multi Racial Corporation, assistant director, 1970-72; U.S. Department of Justice, Montgomery, AL, office, 1971-72; mayor of Tuskegee, AL, 1972-1996 and 2004—; member of Alabama House of Representatives, 1997-2004; Johnny Ford and Associates Inc., president.
Memberships: National Conference of Black Mayors, founding member and president-emeritus; World Conference of Mayors, founder and director general; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Tuskegee Optimist Club, founding president.
Addresses: Office—Tuskegee City Hall, 101 Fonville St., PO Box 830687, Tuskegee, AL 36083.
Served Twenty-four Years
Ford's first term in office was so tumultuous that he had a security detail for personal protection. He also an- gered some local black leaders when he admitted to voting for the Republican incumbent, Richard M. Nixon, in the 1972 presidential race. "Other places may be losing Federal funds because of cuts, but not Tuskegee. I've prevented that," he told B. Drummond Ayres in the New York Times. "I'm a practical man and that makes for good politics."
Ford was reelected mayor five more times, serving until 1996. A year later he won a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives, representing Macon County, and served for six years. In 2003 he switched party affiliation from Democratic to Republican, which made him the first black Republican to serve in the Alabama state house since Reconstruction. "I see this as an opportunity to work from within the Republican Party to bring about change and accomplish goals," a report in Jet quoted him as saying. A year later, he ran again for mayor of Tuskegee and won.
Ford's marriage to Rainer ended in divorce, as did his second and third marriages. In December of 2006 he wed Joyce London Alexander, who in 1979 had become the first African-American woman to be appointed a magistrate judge in the United States. In 1996 she was named chief magistrate judge in Massachusetts. Because of their career commitments, their union became a long-distance one.
During his seventh term as Tuskegee mayor, Ford focused on making Tuskegee an important stop on African-American heritage tours. The airfield where the Tuskegee Airmen had trained had been named a National Historic Site, and Ford wanted a similar designation for the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital. "The Tuskegee Veterans Hospital was to medicine what the Tuskegee Airmen were to aviation as far as African Americans getting involved and making history," he told Rick Harmon in the Montgomery Advertiser. "Because the hospital here is where black doctors, black social workers, black nurses and others helped make history for their professions."
Jet, February 3, 2003, p. 6.
Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, AL), March 6, 2008.
New York Times, October 5, 1972, p. 97; November 9, 1972, p. 54; June 27, 1973, p. 41.