J.T. Ford, 96: Longtime pastor was early advocate of racial harmony

J.T. Ford

J.T. Ford

Atlanta dubbed itself “the city too busy to hate” in the early 1960s in hopes of drawing a distinction between Georgia’s capitol city and the racial violence in other Southern towns.

But a single act a few years earlier helped to lay the groundwork for the slogan's claim.

In November 1957, 80 Atlanta clergymen – including Wieuca Road First Baptist Church founding pastor J.T. Ford – issued a “ministers’ manifesto,” challenging the massive public and political resistance to school desegregation.

Against a backdrop of outrage and defiance, they called for a calm, rationale response, communication between the races, and obedience of the law. The first-of-its-kind document drew national praise as evidence of rational voices in the Deep South, long considered the bedrock of segregation.

“That group of people took a very courageous stance that many church-going people were against,” said Bob Freeman, an Atlanta real estate agent and Ford’s longtime friend. “They said everybody needs to have an equal seat at the table. Everybody is a child of God.”

For Ford, “I think it was one of the prouder moments of his ministry,” Freeman said.

Dr. James Thomas “J.T.” Ford Sr., 96, pastor emeritus of Wieuca Road Baptist Church, college administrator and signer of the “Ministers’ Manifesto,” died Nov. 23. He was at his home in Lenbrook, a senior community on Atlanta’s Peachtree Road.

His funeral service was Tuesday at the church.

Born in Paducah, Ky., Ford attended Draughon Business College on a scholarship and worked in business until he responded to the call to Christian ministry, his family said.

His pastoral work began in Alabama – first at First Baptist Church in Huntsville and then at Birmingham’s First Baptist Church.

While in Birmingham, he was offered the position as Wieuca’s first pastor.

Ford served nine years at the church, overseeing its growth from 325 members to more than 1,500 members.

“Wieuca needed a strong person in the pulpit and a strong leader, and he was able to really set the table for what was to come in the glory days of the church,” said Dr. Mark Wilbanks, Wieuca’s current senior pastor.

Ford “worked the neighborhood,” building membership, in part, by knocking on doors and encouraging area residents to join the church, Wilbanks said.

Ford was “always a man of stature, a giant,” Freeman said.

Not only did he stand over 6 feet tall, Ford had a demeanor and deep baritone voice that demanded the attention of anyone in the room, his friend said.

“He just had that presence – a twinkle in the eyes,” Freeman said. “He was just very much the quintessential gentleman.”

Ford wound up his pastoral work at First Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and then moved onto his next calling in college administration at West Georgia College in Carrollton, Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., and the Georgia Foundation for Independent Colleges.

While holding down these jobs, he found time to serve 17 interim pastorates. After his “retirement” in 1988, he accepted the challenge of energizing Baptists in the north Atlanta suburbs, which resulted in 13 new startup churches.

Through it all, his wife of 73 years, the former Mary Helen Crockett Ford, was at his side.

J.T. and Mary Helen Ford

icon to expand image

Ford, who had several college and seminary degrees, was recognized as Rotarian of the Year in 2003 by the Buckhead Rotary Club. He’d been a member of several clubs and at the Buckhead club since 1980.

A resolution from the Buckhead’s club’s president at the time said Ford will be remembered “as a person who cared, like Barnabas, a genuine friend and person of goodness and faith.”

Ford and his wife spent their final years at Lenbrook and back at Wieuca Road Baptist as members.

At Lenbrook, Ford and two other residents went to the company’s CEO and successfully pleaded the case for a chaplain program for the community of 500-plus residents.

“He felt for residential care that spiritual wellness was supremely important,” said Robbye Jarrell, Lenbrook’s chaplain. “And he knew that emotional wound care doesn’t just happen. You can’t leave it to chance.”

Jarrell said Ford was an extrovert by nature with a naturally resonant speaking voice.

“You didn’t have to guess where he stood on the issues, and I found that clarity refreshing,” she said.

Wilbanks said that Ford, the parishioner, was a “great encourager.”

“Not all former pastors who are parishioners know how to do that,” he said. “But I knew he was praying for me, and I knew he loved the church.”

Ford’s wife died a few months ago, and the loss he felt was profound, Wilbanks and others said.

“I rejoice his journey is over,” Wilbanks said.

Ford is survived by his son, Tom Ford, his sister, Freida Moss, adopted daughter Sandra Young Smith, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.