Opinion

How Henry Ford’s fortune is being used to rip America apart

It’s November 2023 and, following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas terrorists that killed some 1,200 Israelis and at least 31 Americans, thousands of demonstrators march through New York City, calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” echo through the streets, along with: “There is only one solution: intifada revolution.”

Among the crowd is the infamous Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour, who warns through a megaphone that a cabal of wily Jews has conspired to place “their little posters” (of kidnapped Israeli civilians) across the city, seeking to entice people to rip them down.

While many onlookers might look like “ordinary people,” she says, the Jews have “their little people all around the city,” surveilling others.

Sarsour is there to deliver such rhetoric in part because she’s been paid to be there. Her nonprofit, MPower Change, has received $300,000 in grant funding from the Ford Foundation “to build grassroots Muslim power.”

It’s May 2023, and protesters have stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC, to demand that lawmakers not accept spending cuts during negotiations to lift the debt ceiling. Many are so disruptive that the police arrest them and drag them out.

These are activists of the Center for Popular Democracy, an extreme left-wing organization that has collected $35.2 million from the Ford Foundation since 2012.

Four months later, they will be imitated by 150 youth activists from “climate revolution” group the Sunrise Movement, 18 of whom will be arrested after occupying the House speaker’s office.

The Sunrise Movement also receives Ford Foundation money — $650,000 for “training and organizing.”

No cause off limits

It’s April 2023 and, a world away, the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), a think tank set up and directed by the Chinese state, is hosting a conference in Beijing to discuss how to “promote the formation of an internationally accepted ESG [environmental, social and governance] system with Chinese characteristics,” including through China’s globe-spanning influence and infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative.

But this effort by America’s top geopolitical adversary isn’t too far afield for the Ford Foundation to fund: It has given CDRF $600,000 to help realize its ambitions.

These examples from just the past year — collected via a semi-random tour of the Ford Foundation’s vast Grants Database — represent a tiny fraction of the nearly $1 billion that the foundation gives away yearly on average.

Almost a century old and sitting on a mountainous $16.4 billion endowment in 2022, the foundation is a “philanthropic” giant — one of the five largest in the US

If it were a for-profit firm, its market capitalization would rank it among the Fortune 500.

Instead, “guided by a vision of social justice,” as its mission statement puts it, the Ford Foundation’s enormous flood of untaxed money flows annually to an immense ecosystem of overwhelmingly left-wing — and often outright revolutionary — causes.

Yet its activities remain largely below the public’s radar, the extent of its malign history mostly unknown. This should change.

America today faces a multitude of escalating sociopolitical crises that are rapidly tearing apart the body politic: a rapacious strain of tribal identity politics; spreading legal, cultural and moral chaos; lawlessness in the streets; and the entrenchment of an oligarchic managerial elite, increasingly willing to cast aside any remaining shred of democratic or national sovereignty in its pursuit of top-down global “progress.”

Behind every one of these fractures, one finds the ongoing work of the Ford Foundation.

It wasn’t originally intended to be a beacon for leftist revolutionaries. Industrialist Henry Ford founded it in 1936 as a tax dodge.

Tax dodge to unaccountable

Crippling inheritance taxes imposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s antitrust Revenue Act threatened to end family control of the Ford Motor Company — hence, a philanthropic awakening.

When Ford died in 1947, 90% of company holdings were bequeathed as nonvoting shares to the foundation, protecting the family from having to sell stock to raise cash.

Then, in a successful maneuver to shield from government scrutiny what was now the world’s largest private foundation, successor Henry Ford II transitioned it into an independent entity that sought to portray itself as an arms-length instrument for America’s Cold War liberal establishment, at home and abroad.

By the 1960s, however, following America’s intelligentsia, the Ford Foundation’s managers came to believe that human welfare would be best served not by building and maintaining lasting institutions and norms but by tearing them down.

As Heather Mac Donald chronicled in City Journal almost three decades ago, the foundation’s trustees, energized by John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election, started “clamoring for a more radical vision,” and, according to a former employee, demanded “action-oriented rather than research-oriented” initiatives to “test the outer edges of advocacy.”

Henry Ford originally started the Ford Foundation as a tax dodge.
Henry Ford originally started the Ford Foundation as a tax dodge. SSPL via Getty Images

Enter Paul Ylvisaker, a Harvard social theorist and head of the Ford Foundation’s Public Affairs Program.

His genius was to link the concentration of newly arrived black migrants in inner-city neighborhoods to the federal government’s zeal to wage a “War on Poverty.”

Here, he believed, the Ford Foundation could fill a gap in the market for social progress. The foundation would see urban life “perfected” through the latest social science expertise.

What these urban minority “gray areas” (his polite term for ghettos) needed, he argued, was top-down guidance from foundation managers to build grassroots community leadership.

He was proposing what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) later described as “nothing less than [an] institutional change in the operation and control of American cities.” Ylvisaker had invented, Moynihan added, “a new level of American government: the inner-city community action agency.”

The Lyndon Johnson administration, which treated the Ford Foundation as a quasi-official ideas lab, fully embraced Ylvisaker’s gray-areas concept, modeling the urban component of its War on Poverty on his community agencies and incorporating the foundation’s pilot projects, redubbing them federal Community Action Programs (CAPs).

Inner-city deployment

Foundation technocrats were effectively parachuted into minority communities around the country to manage the distribution of federal money. Mac Donald memorably described the resulting chaos:

“Ford’s urban cadres soon began tearing up cities. Militancy became the mark of merit for federal funders, according to Senator Moynihan. In Newark, the director of the local CAP urged blacks to arm themselves before the 1967 riots; leaflets calling for a demonstration were run off on the CAP’s mimeograph machine.

“The federal government funneled community action money to Chicago gangs — posing as neighborhood organizers — who then continued to terrorize their neighbors.”

But the Ford Foundation was only getting warmed up. Its metric for success or failure wasn’t results produced on the ground, but proximity to power and influence.

In August 1966, McGeorge Bundy, former national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, made his first major policy speech as the foundation’s new president, declaring that the organization would chart a new course, shifting from more traditional liberal causes to leading in a “courageous experiment”: From now on, the black struggle would be at the forefront of the foundation’s efforts.

Ford’s spending on “rights for minorities” exploded — to $100 million between 1965 and 1969 alone. In 1970, this category would reach 40% of the foundation’s entire domestic program budget.

Thus also began the foundation’s first foray into backing the Black Power movement.

Ylvisaker advanced a further scheme, based on a new pet theory of how to resolve what Bundy called the “Negro problem.” Integration hadn’t worked, under this view, so why not try racial separatism?

The foundation chose New York City’s education system as its initial target.

The plan was to establish demonstration school districts in which classrooms and curricula would be put under the control of the “community” (read: the foundation’s chosen activist cadres), in the name of black self-determination.

It spent more than $1.4 million on this experiment, including lavishly funding activists’ election campaigns to take over the school boards of chosen districts.

In doing so, the Ford Foundation backed those whom it determined to be “representative of the most militant, the most alienated, the most mistrustful, the most volatile grassroots people challenging the educational system in New York City,” according to an internal foundation document.

Ford planners assured doubters that the “classic pattern of the revolutionary is that, when he takes power, he shifts from destroying institutions to building order and new institutions.”

They certainly got plenty of destruction for their money.

The foundation chose as the leading figure of its project a militantly antiwhite acolyte of Malcom X, Rhody McCoy, who sought a segregated, all-black school system.

Divisive by design

McCoy quickly fired dozens of white teachers and assistant principals and chose deputies from within the Black Power movement to replace them, such as Herman Ferguson, a founding member of both the radical Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and Malcolm X’s nationalist Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Ferguson duly organized programs for students that included exhorting them to prepare for armed struggle against whites.

McCoy also hired Les Campbell, the head of the radical Afro-American Teachers Association, who organized the students of his high school into a personal antisemitic militia, establishing “bodyguards” to intimidate white teachers and beat up Jews, whom he accused of committing “mental genocide” against black youth.

After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Campbell unleashed his young guards to hunt teachers through the halls, instructing them to “send whitey to the graveyard.”

The response to all this agitation was the 1968 citywide teachers’ strike that convulsed New York for weeks, causing a lasting fracture in the city’s black–Jewish relations and sparking a national conservative backlash that helped propel Richard Nixon into the White House.

Eventually, the foundation pulled back from funding the project, but it never denounced its grantees or acknowledged any responsibility.

Bundy huffed that the outrage was unfair, saying, “If private foundations cannot assist experiments, their unique role will be impaired, to the detriment of American society.”

We should be clear about Bundy’s notion of the “unique role” of foundations. It had nothing to do with charity. It was, and is, to transmute oligarchic money into influence within the managerial regime that seeks to rule our country.

It is to provide a shortcut for setting the direction of policy, changing the rules of governance, or “experimenting” with the nation’s social commons at will, without input or interference from the voting public.

After current president Darren Walker took the helm in 2013, the Ford Foundation began more fully to embrace a public identity as a “social justice foundation” and reoriented its mission to “disrupt the drivers of inequality” in every sphere of life and across the globe.

To that end, the foundation directed a record sum of more than $3 billion to “racial justice” and “racial equity” groups and programs in 2020-21, including groups associated with defunding the police, Black Lives Matter and Antifa.

It would be easy to assume, as many conservatives have done for years, that based on its actions, the Ford Foundation must itself be run by some Marxoid cabal.

But little evidence suggests that this is true. Rather, if anything, the reality appears worse: The foundation’s often bewilderingly destructive actions result from its complete faith in the superiority of liberal technocratic expertise to engineer a more perfect society from the top down.

Anti-democratic

What the Ford Foundation has always most abhorred is the democratic will of the common man.

As early as 1949, the authors of a key report setting the foundation’s core priorities were openly disdainful of democratic self-government, dismissing the “grotesque” “myth” that “any citizen of reasonable character” was qualified to make important decisions.

Only “sensitive and intellectually gifted men and women” were fit to make decisions as the “competent technicians and administrators” of the country and ensure “the welfare of the general public.”

This thirst to exercise enlightened elite control over the public and circumvent the need for legislative democracy has taken many forms in the foundation’s work.

Witness its pouring of millions into remaking American law schools and funding legal professorships, fellowships and nonprofits, thus inventing an entirely new field — public interest law — engaged in the lobbying of federal courts to impose big social changes by fiat.

Its decades spent shredding the American way of life merely show what happens when a gang of self-regarding “experts” are handed an almost unlimited pile of other people’s money to spend, an indefinite mission to change the world, and no accountability whatsoever.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Henry Ford II told an interviewer in 1973, “but the biggest mistake I ever made was to give up control of the Ford Foundation.” The foundation, he said, had “been a fiasco from my point of view from day one. And it got out of control.”

“You know,” he mused, “we [the Ford Motor Co.] only exist because we’re smart enough to sell something for a profit and we can get thrown out or we can go broke; but those people, they’ve got nobody to answer to.”

He said he had tried several times to break up the foundation but had been unsuccessful because “I didn’t have enough confidence in myself at that stage to push and scream and yell and tell them to go f- -k themselves, which, you know, I should have done.”

We’d all be better off if he had.

N.S. Lyons writes “The Upheaval” on Substack. Excerpted with permission from City Journal.