By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—A battle looms on the near horizon. According to the man who is leading the charge it is a fight for justice, economic freedom and the right of free people to determine their destiny.
Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford (D-AL) sees the reopening of VictoryLand in Macon County, Alabama, not as a story about gaming but one of self-determination and prosperities for all.
“We have lost our major industry which impacts every part of society in Macon County,” said Mayor Ford. “We are a minority county, our voting rights, economic right and civil right have been threatened.”
For decades VictoryLand, owned by Milton McGregor, employed thousands in Macon County. For the last two years it has been shuttered and, according to Ford, it has brought economic hardship on the predominately African-American community, leaving families suffering and schools and cities in crisis.
Milton McGregor has said he will reopen VictoryLand in Shorter, before January, 1, 2013, but it would appear law enforcement is set to challenge McGregor’s plans. However, according to Ford, this story began long before Milton McGregor or VictoryLand every took root in Macon County.
“In December 1982, the Board of Education announced that schools would be closing in Macon County because of lack of funding,” said Ford. He says he vividly remembers the teachers gathered outside the courthouse protesting the school closings. “The teachers came to me for help,” he says and as a temporary fix he was able to convince the utility board to give the money to pay the teachers. But, Ford realized immediately that there must be a permanent solution to the financial difficulties facing Macon County.
Ford said he made a trip to Montgomery to meet with then-Governor George Wallace.
“I had gone to Governor Wallace when our school were in trouble and asked him to help save our schools. The governor said it was not the state’s job and I needed to find a way to save the schools in Macon County,” said Ford.
In a search for a solution, Ford turned to the voice and will of the people. In a town hall meeting, Ford addressed the citizens of the county and offered them the choices he saw that might properly fund education going forward.
“At the town hall meeting, I told people you can have an occupational tax, raise the Ad vilurium tax [property tax], you can raise sales tax or you can vote on gaming,” Ford recalled.
Ford says that the people decided that they wanted to look at gaming as an industry to fund schools and grow the economic future of the area.
“There had been two attempts to bring gaming into Macon County before this, but I was against those efforts,” said Ford.
He said that those efforts had come from outside the county and were not the kinds of businesses that Ford favored seeing take hold. But because this time gaming was a homegrown remedy and came out of a need to fund education, Ford said he put his weight behind the enterprise. Working with then-State Legislators Thomas Reed in the House and Foy Covington in the Senate, the endeavor to bring gaming to Macon County was underway.
The bill offered to bring gaming to Macon County passed and was set for a constitutional vote. Even thought the governor doesn’t have per se influence in a constitutional amendment, Ford said he went again to see Wallace and asked him, “to not be against it.” Ford said that Wallace “could have caused us problems.”
Ford remembers, “I was the first black politician to support Governor Wallace.”
Ford said he reminded the Governor that “I supported you in 1974,” and as a result the Governor never interfered in Macon County’s Constitutional Amendment to allow gaming.
The vote in 1983 was approved by the citizens of Macon County by an overwhelming 76 percent. “That was the beginning of dog racing in Macon County” with VictoryLand opening in 1984.
What some say began as a fight for education has over the decades evolved into a battle between local and state governments, fiscal and social conservatives and everyone in between.
Part 2: Fast Forward 2003