Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism

By Karen Ferguson | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
The Best and the Brightest

In January 1979, the Ford Foundation announced that Franklin Thomas would replace the retiring McGeorge Bundy as the president of the Foundation, which was still the nation’s largest and most powerful philanthropy. In making this appointment, the trustees made a monumental gesture that symbolized the culmination of Ford’s long-standing commitment to racial assimilation. Thomas was not only black but also a Foundation protégé, having spent ten years from 1967 to 1977 as the handpicked, founding president of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), a demonstration by Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Ford Foundation to institutionalize establishment liberalism’s attack on the urban crisis through the creation and support of community-development corporations (CDCs).

Unlike most of the other African American grantees with whom the Foundation had dealt in the late 1960s, Thomas had not disappointed Ford’s officers and trustees, and the CDC model had cultivated his talents and those of the dozens of black leaders he had helped to develop at BSRC. Thomas’s appointment as the Foundation’s president was tangible proof that social development’s strategy of black leadership development and individual upward mobility had worked and that Ford’s own scheme for community development had fostered that success. Thomas’s move was also widely interpreted both inside and outside the Foundation as a portent of further racial progress and perhaps even a postracial future. As the New York Times editorialized, “When corporate America can hand such power to a black citizen, there is truly hope that race will one day be irrelevant.”1

The Foundation’s announcement of Thomas’s appointment was a long way off in 1967, when he took the helm at BSRC. It was also after what Paul Ylvisaker called the Foundation’s “beautiful running time” during the first half of the 1960s, when his enormously influential strategy of systems reform and assimilation through community action shaped the cutting edge of the

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