A day after the nation elected its first black president in Barack Obama, mourners gathered Wednesday in Columbus to remember George Washington Ford Jr., a man who blazed political trails for many blacks.
"It's so ironic that this day, as we celebrate the life of George Washington Ford Jr., it is the day after we elected Barack Obama," U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, told hundreds gathered at Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church. Obama was elected Tuesday to become the 44th president of the United States.
Bishop noted that it was Ford who blazed a trail for him and other politicians such as state Rep. Calvin Smyre, Councilor Evelyn Turner-Pugh, the late Mayor Pro-tem A.J McClung and the late judge and state Rep. Albert Thompson.
"He had courage to show the way," Bishop said.
Ford, known as a little man with a big heart, died Oct. 29 at St. Francis Hospital in Columbus. He was 84.
During a time of reflection, many remembered the founder and president emeritus of Progressive Funeral Home as a man who would give you food, a job or words of encouragement if needed.
Born in Columbus in 1924, Ford grew up during an unfavorable time for blacks. He was a freshman at Spencer High School when he joined the NAACP in 1939, becoming the youngest member and known as "Mr. NAACP."
"George Ford lit the torch, and we stand on his shoulders," Smyre said. "I can't remember when I did not know George Ford."
In the late 1960s, Smyre went to Ford and other community leaders when he graduated from Fort Valley State College and wanted to remain in Columbus. Seeking a job, he ended up being hired on the spot on a Friday for a position with the Georgia Department of Labor.
State Sen. Ed Harbison came to Columbus in 1972 and quickly learned that Ford was a man you should emulate.
"I can't imagine Columbus, Ga., without George Ford," he said. "I can't imagine Columbus, Ga., succeeding in the places it succeeded without the input of my good friend George Ford."
To Harbison, Ford was chief.
"You understood he embraced you as a chief," Harbison said. "Many days, he would call and say, 'Ed, I want this done and want that done.' I knew he had the moral authority to get the job done. I wanted to be a part of that moral authority."
Robert L. Wright, an optometrist and successful businessman, recalled how he temporarily shut down his practice to help Ford run for County Commission in 1964. In a race against P.B. Massey, Ford became the county's first black candidate since Sim Griffin was elected coroner in 1887.
"He knew he could not win," Wright said of Ford. "His life was threatened. The road was heavy and night got dark. He was an ordinary man doing extraordinary things. He knew he was losing to win."
He lost to Massey in that election and again in 1968, but he blazed a trail.
"As a result, all African Americans elected to office in Columbus stand on the shoulders of George Washington Ford Jr.," Wright said.
Ford's life is not defined by what he did but what he did for others.
"He never saw a homeless person that he refused to give food," Wright said. "He never saw a person that needed a job, that he did not help find employment. He never saw a person who needed counseling that he did not have a word of encouragement."
The Rev. J.H. Flakes, pastor of Fourth Street, learned how generous Ford was after he preached a sermon on titled "Pay Your Bill."
"If everybody would pay me, I'd be a millionaire," Flakes said of Ford.
Ford was a voice of reason.
"His knees never got weak, his hands never got tired, his eyes never got dim, and his priorities never got confused," Wright said. "Love for our city never grew cold."
Dr. Thomas Theus, Ford's doctor, said he was a great American, no doubt about it. "God truly sent us a special person," he said.
Flakes said Ford is moving from one state to another just as America.
"Seems to me, George is transitioning in the midst of a transformation," Flakes aid. "For America has demonstrated she is in the process of being transformed. It is fitting we celebrate George today because he was working to bring about a transformation in Columbus."