In Memphis, a troubled political dynasty wanes

Times Staff Writer

The 65th birthday of former state Sen. John Ford was yet another bad day for the Fords of Memphis.

The 31-year Democratic legislator marked the May 3 milestone in a Nashville court, scheduling a trial date with federal prosecutors who have charged him with concealing $800,000 in kickbacks from state contractors.

Less than a week earlier, a Memphis jury found him guilty of taking $55,000 in cash bribes, a conviction that carries a prison sentence of at least three years and 10 months.


John Ford’s conviction represents the most significant smear thus far on a family that has been dogged by scandal for years. In the wake of several election setbacks last year for a younger generation of Fords, his troubles might serve as a coda to a decades-long political tale.

“The Ford political machine is coming to an end, and sometimes the end isn’t as pretty as the beginning,” said Larry Moore, a business law professor at the University of Memphis who has known the Fords for years.

The Fords were once the leading African-American political dynasty in Tennessee -- a family that had stood for black authority in this racially polarized city since the 1970s.

The Ford name became legend in Memphis as whites moved from the city to the suburbs during the turbulent post-civil-rights era. By 1974, the percentage of black voters had increased enough for three sons of a local funeral director to win an unprecedented electoral victory: John was elected to the state Senate, Emmett was elected to the state House, and Harold defeated an incumbent to become the first African American from Tennessee elected to the U.S. Congress in the 20th century.

Proud, educated and militant, the Ford brothers, who grew up with nine other siblings in a South Memphis home without running water, were instantly deified by Memphis’ poor black underclass.

In the years to come, eight Fords from two generations would be elected to city, county and state positions. A single seat on the City Council became known as the “Ford seat” after being occupied first by John, then James, Joseph and Edmund.


Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, a longtime Ford family rival and the city’s first black mayor, once accused the family of seeking “a monopoly on all elected positions in this state and this county.”

Yet the Fords’ hold on black voters has waned in recent years. The majority of elected officials in Memphis, which is 61% black, are African American, but only three are Fords: Joseph is a Shelby County commissioner, Edmund remains a Memphis city councilman and Ophelia is a state senator.

Last year, the younger generation of Fords lost several bids for political office. Most notably, Harold Jr., 37, the polished former congressman, narrowly lost his bid to become the first African American U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction. At the same time, his younger brother, Jake, failed to win Harold Jr.’s 9th Congressional District seat, which had been held by the family since 1975.

Today, the Fords represent just one faction in Memphis politics, said political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. And it’s a far-from-unified faction. In 2002, Ophelia unsuccessfully challenged her brother Joseph for a Shelby County commission seat. Last year, when Jake ran for Harold Jr.’s former congressional seat, some family members backed his opponent.

Meanwhile, scandal has been incessant. Emmett, elected in 1974, gave up his state House seat after he was convicted of insurance fraud in 1981. Harold Sr. spent the late 1980s fighting a federal indictment for bank fraud, although he was eventually acquitted. Ophelia, who replaced John in the state Senate in 2005 after he was indicted in an FBI corruption sting, was accused of voting irregularities. That election was voided, but she was subsequently cleared of charges and reelected.

Then in December, Edmund Sr., elected as Memphis city councilman in 1999, was indicted on federal bribery charges. Edmund Jr. has already announced his intention to fill his father’s seat.


As for John, he has vowed to appeal his conviction stemming from “Operation Tennessee Waltz.” The federal sting, which resulted in charges against five current or former lawmakers, prompted the Legislature to set up an independent Tennessee Ethics Commission and pass sweeping new lobbying rules last year.

Ford was shown repeatedly in undercover tapes stuffing $100 bills in his pockets.

“It’s tough, tough for the family,” sighed John’s younger brother Joseph, as he sat in a small office of the family’s funeral parlor on John’s birthday. “I’m only glad that my father and mother are not here to see it.”

John has said he was a victim of entrapment by overzealous, politically motivated federal agents. Although he did not convince jurors, his argument has many supporters in South Memphis’ gritty neighborhoods.

“I think they set him up just to get him out of office,” said Nathaniel Lee, 42, who grew up playing football with some of the Ford boys and buried both of his grandparents with N.J. Ford & Sons funeral parlor.

“If you offered me $55,000, I would take it,” he added as he pumped gas into a gleaming pickup. “I’d go on a cruise, and then I’d pay this truck off.”

Some community leaders say they are frustrated by such loyalty to the Fords.

“How can they see a man take all those $100 bills and say he is innocent?” asked Kenneth Whalum Jr., 50, a Memphis school board commissioner and pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church.


Whalum has a bleak view of the Ford legacy. As he sees it, bright African Americans with political aspirations left the city, feeling shut out by the Fords. This, he said, stunted Memphis’ political progress, resulting in “a sort of collective numbness of psyche.”

While the Fords became legendary for securing Social Security checks for constituents and handing out Christmas baskets of turkeys and hams, they failed to deliver fundamental inner-city services such as road construction and street repairs, Whalum said.

The constant scandal is especially damaging to any Ford -- notably Harold Jr. -- who has ambitions beyond Memphis. The Ford name could be a hindrance in places where voters might have difficulty keeping all the names straight.

“In Memphis, we know Edmund is not John, and we know John is not Harold, and we know Harold Sr. is not Harold Jr.,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. “But that’s not the case outside Memphis.”

Early this month, Joseph defended the Ford family’s record for serving constituents as “pretty darn good.” But he seemed uncertain about how much longer the Fords would continue in politics.

“In three years we will probably wind up without any Fords in office,” he said, adding that he did not plan to seek a further term. “That would make me feel good. I’m kind of tired of the political game.”