“WHERE DO YOU GO TO GET YOUR GOOD NAME BACK?”
That’s what Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of Labor, said after he had been declared innocent on charges of grand larceny and fraud by a New York court in 1987. Donovan was the first presidential cabinet officer ever indicted while still in office, but at least he was exonerated.
Michigan’s Steve Nisbet and his family won’t get that chance. Nisbet is long gone, so he won’t have an opportunity to defend himself against accusations that have tarnished his legacy and besmirched the reputations of his descendants.
It all started on May 25 of this year, when the American public watched in shock and horror at endless replays of the slow motion execution of George Floyd under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, captured by a bystander’s cell phone camera. The atrocity unleashed waves of nationwide protest marches against systemic racism.
During weeks of demonstrations, President Donald Trump railed about “law and order.” For many months, Trump has decried what is called a “cancel culture,” with protesters demanding the removal of Confederate statues and the renaming of Army forts and Marine Corps camps named for Confederate generals during World War I.
A heightened period of racial sensitivity is now rightly alive in our nation, but there is another side to a “cancel culture.” It hit home last week when the Board of Trustees of Michigan State University voted unanimously to remove Stephen S. Nisbet’s name from a building on the MSU campus.
One past president of the Michigan Political History Society, retired attorney Bob LaBrant, says that, after he arrived in Michigan in 1977, he came to know the name Stephen Nisbet as an illustrious political icon. Says LaBrant: “Nisbet was a vice president at Gerber Baby Foods in Fremont. As a former public school teacher, principal, and school superintendent, Nisbet had served on the State Board of Education (1943-1961), which, under the 1908 Constitution, oversaw the four-year colleges that began as “normal schools” (Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Northern Michigan Universities, etc.). Then, in 1961, Nisbet was elected as a delegate to the 144-member Michigan Constitutional Convention from the 26th senatorial district. Republican delegates dominated the make-up of the conclave (99 R-45 D). Liberal/moderate Republicans were backing George Romney for convention president. Conservative Republicans were backing either former state legislator Ed Hutchinson or D. Hale Brake, the ex-state Treasurer. However, it was Stephen Nisbet who emerged as the consensus compromise and was elected to serve as Con-Con’s president.”
LaBrant knows that the 1961-62 Con-Con produced, for its time, what was regarded as one of the most modern state constitutions in the nation. One of the innovations in the proposed constitution was the creation, for the first time in any state, of a Civil Rights Commission to investigate alleged discrimination against any person because of religion, race, color, or national origin. The voters of Michigan adopted the Convention’s proposed constitution in March, 1963. Michigan has operated under that 1963 Constitution, as amended, ever since.
In 1963, Stephen Nisbet was elected to the Board of Trustees for Michigan State University. He served until 1970. One of his signal accomplishments on the board was his vote on selecting a new MSU president. Legendary MSU CEO John Hannah retired in 1969 after serving as president for 28 years (1941-1969). On October 17, 1969, Nisbet cast the deciding vote for Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., PhD, to be the new MSU president, succeeding Hannah. The vote was 5-3. Wharton was the first African-American to be selected as president of a major U.S. university in the nation.
In 1974, MSU named the Nisbet building, located at 1407 S. Harrison in East Lansing, in his honor. The Nisbet building has housed some of the university’s College of Social Sciences and Human Resources. Nisbet died in 1986 at the age of 91.
But now Nisbet apparently has fallen from grace. It started 28 years ago, in 1992, six years after Nisbet’s death. Auction workers searching an old farm house attic in Newaygo County discovered three trunks containing records and Ku Klux Klan artifacts from the 1920s. One of the trunks held records containing the names of 679 dues-paying members of the Newaygo County Klan No. 29 of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The auctioneer was concerned that public inspection of the membership files could be an invasion of privacy, so only the purchaser could see the documents. That purchaser was Central Michigan University’s Clarke Library.
Flash forward to 2011, when the MSU Press published a book by Craig Fox titled Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan. It was based on the records housed at the Clarke Library. Fox writes that the KKK was not the extremist group in Michigan as the Klan was after the Civil War or later in the 1960s in the South. Klan members in the 1920s in Michigan, according to Fox, were in many ways more akin to other fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows and Elks. The Klan served as a social outlet in rural Michigan. The Klan helped bolster their ranks by a marketing campaign of one member recommending others. Targeting community establishment figures for membership was common, including local public officials, newspapermen, and citizens active in church and schools. According to Fox, Klan members in Michigan did not wear masks. But, even though the Newaygo Klan had supposedly one of the highest per capita membership rosters in the entire country, it quickly faded into oblivion after about two years.
But here’s the bombshell: the Clarke Library records list a Steven S. Nisbet, age 29, superintendent of Fremont Schools, living at 233 Dayton Street, paying a $10 membership fee.
Today, Stephen P. Nisbet, his 70-year-old grandson, said his grandfather’s first name was spelled wrong and that he lived, at that time, at a different address — 332 Main Street in Fremont. Nisbet said there was no signature on the record and no one in his family knew of any Klan membership held by his grandfather. Grandson Nisbet pleaded with the MSU Board of Trustees, but to no avail, to table the motion to remove his grandfather’s name from the MSU building until a professional historian could complete an investigation and verify key facts.
The current MSU President, Samuel Stanley, had received information about Nisbet found in the Fox/Clarke records from an unnamed MSU faculty member several months ago. Stanley eventually brought the info to the attention of the MSU board, which wasted no time in expunging Nisbet’s name from the Harrison St. edifice. Stanley told Detroit News reporter Kim Kozlowski: “Our decision is not about Mr. Nisbet’s family, or even his contributions to education and public life in Michigan. It’s about acknowledging that the KKK has been engaged in extreme racism and horrific violence toward Black Americans from the end of the Civil War until today.” Stanley’s (and the board’s) decision was that Nisbet’s association with MSU had to end, period.
Nisbet’s alma mater, a private institution some 45 miles north of MSU named Alma College, made a similar decision. Not only was Nisbet an Alma alumnus, but he had served many decades on its governing board. Nisbet’s name was removed last week from an Alma College residence hall named for him.
So let’s consider the parallels between the “Nisbet cancel culture” at MSU and Alma College and an important period in U.S. history some seven decades ago.
The entire Nisbet episode evokes memories of the Communist witch hunt era of the 1940s and 1950s led by the House Un-American Activities Committee and, slightly later, a U.S. Senate panel’s hearings led by U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), known as the “Army-McCarthy hearings.” The HUAC/McCarthy hearings resulted in numerous screen writers like Dalton Trumbo being purged and placed on a Hollywood black list. Accused Communists like Owen Lattimore were smeared and vilified. Everyone is familiar with the infamous question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Those hearings left damaged lives in their wake and today are considered a national disgrace.
Now these witch hunts have come to Michigan, and there are not even hearings anymore.
Nisbet, born in Tawas City in 1895, was a returning World War I Navy veteran when he settled in rural Fremont, inhabited by almost no racial minorities (it was heavily white and Protestant). Nisbet first taught school before moving into K-12 administration. The Political Graveyard website lists him as a member of the Congregational Church, the American Legion , the Rotary, the Freemasons, and Phi Delta Kappa. Was he recruited to join the Klan? Probably. Fox reports the Newaygo KKK held fireworks and community picnics, but did the Newaygo Klan No. 29 ever burn a cross? Craig Fox says “Yes,” but was Nisbet present or even know about it? Who knows? Fox does not report any attacks on Blacks or Jews (there weren’t any) on the streets of Fremont. Stephen Nisbet may have bought a $10 membership, or not, but it was for just a brief time early in a long life.
The late U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Alabama’s Hugo Black, also a U.S. Senator and later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, were also both Klansmen, but neither has had his name stripped from buildings, monuments or plaques in their native states. The Nisbets were not so lucky.
MSU’s attempt at political correctness has sullied the reputation of a distinguished Michigan public servant. His family did not deserve this public humiliation although, admittedly, Nesbit’s “punishment” has not been as severe as that of McCarthy’s victims. Clearly, Nisbet’s public record was not racist, just the opposite. His leadership at the Constitutional Convention led to the establishment of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. His vote on the MSU Board of Trustees elected Clifton Wharton, the first black President of a major U.S. university.
The vote by the MSU Board of Trustees, and by Alma College, can only be explained as a rush to judgment by panicky public officials, to the discredit of the board and to President Stanley, who came to Michigan less than two years ago from New York and knows little of this state’s history or Nisbet’s role in it.
Dennis Muchmore says
Again, it takes Bill Ballenger and Bob LaBrant to set the record straight on the overboarding of political correctness. I came to Michigan five years after the 1963 constitutional changes were made. Stephen Nesbit was lauded by everyone I met as the “cool customer” who led Michigan into modern constitutional times. Several of the legislators still in office when I came remarked on his ability to bring order out of chaos and keep everyone calm when tempers flared. I only wish that Governor Milliken and Senator Young were still here to help people through these revisionist times.
Mr. Nesbit would not seem to deserve the slur on his name and career, and those of us interested in history and the modern product of that history need to stand up and say “Wait a minute, who knows what this was all about.” Is there any corroboration of some misdeeds? It seems unlikely that as Bill and Bob recount that the deciding vote for Clifton Wharton or the leader of a convention that brought a Civil Rights Commission into our state’s fabric would harbor Klan ascriptions.
Maybe someone had a member quota to achieve and threw his name in (hence perhaps the name discrepancy and address issue). There is no doubt the Klan operated pretty openly in the Midwest in the 20’s and 30″s, and my family as Catholics experienced some as victims of the same reactionary actions you so well describe as the Klan decried the rise of “Papism”.
As Arthur Miller wrote in the Crucible: “It is rare for people to be asked the question which puts them squarely in front of themselves”. Maybe a little more introspection would serve the critics well, particularly Mr. Stanley.
William S. Bishop says
Kudos, Bill, for ferreting out yet another cringe worthy story pertaining to this disgusting cancel culture which has somehow gained a foothold in our fine country……if they keep this up, they are going to get another four years of the Orange Moron……BB of Idaho
Sarah Jury says
Very interesting article. Thank you. It is always worth while to hear your level headed interpretations of current events in Michigan.
Peter A Letzmann says
Joe McCarthy. Those who will not learn from history, are damned to repeat it. When will this foolishness stop? Our government leaders must take some sane action to stop this insanity.
Christopher S. Kelly,Sr says
Thank you Bill well written piece it added to my edification, as you most always do, so sad to see a learning institution not taking the time to get the facts right and due their due diligence says a lot about what they may be teaching.
Jerome Dallas Winegarden Jr, says
4000 Afro Americans were Lynched in
This Country ! Many by the KKK .
If you were a member of A Minority
That Had been Treated as a Beast
And Slaves by the Klan what would you
Think of naming a building After A person who Stained himself by supporting those Haters?
Come on you Arrogant Folks Practise
What your supposed to preach about
The scares of the past and racial equality .Do not just give it lip service.
Stephanie Whitbeck says
Rather than quoting Ray Donovan with “Where do I go to get my good name back?”, a more on point reference is former Senator Earl E. Nelson, a former Michigan legislator and Michigan State University graduate, who said precisely the same thing in the 1970s. Nelson, a highly respected Michigan legislator (D-Lansing), former teacher, founder of the Earl Nelson Singers, Director of Equity for the Michigan Department of Education, an ordained minister and who also formerly worked for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce was the victim of a malicious and false smear in the run up to the 1978 primary election. Malicious gossip swirled, orally and in print, day after day and the Senator frequently asked, “Where do I go to get my good name back?” There was no forum.
In a story that ran the day before the 1978 primary, blazing across the entire top half of the front page of the Lansing State Journal, the community learned that the U.S. Attorney indicted Nelson on two charges. With no opportunity to clear his name before the election, he lost. But the legal matter continued. Much later it was resolved in open court in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan (Grand Rapids) before Judge Noel Fox. After witnessing the utter collapse of the prosecutions’ pathetic case in open court, Judge Fox dismissed both charges which were falsely brought against the Honorable Senator Earl E. Nelson.
Earl Nelson’s name was finally cleared but his life was forever changed. Michigan lost a good and able legislator. His family, including his young daughters, endured the pain of the notoriety. The source of the false accusations was never determined but people close to Nelson shared a belief in one suspect. It is sad and painful to watch major institutions like newspapers and universities destroy the permanent reputation and place in history of decent and honorable people without a full and complete review of allegations.
My father attended a KKK meeting in the 20’s. He was appalled. Rather than targeting blacks, which were few in number in SW Michigan at the time, they focused on Jews. While the Odd fellows and the Elks at the time were probably antisemitic their reason for existing was not to promote antisemitism. He most definitly did not join and if it proves out that Nesbit did join then MSU’s actions are correct. That isn’t canceling culture that is recognizing history as it is not as you wish it to be.
Steve Nisbet says
The Klan misrepresented themselves in their desire to recruit members in Newaygo County in the 1920s. Mr. Nisbet separated himself from the organization within 6 mos., as did many other community leaders, when he learned of the Klan’s true intentions.
Kellie Willson says
Stephen Nisbet was very important to my family and me. I grew up in Fremont where he was an exemplar of excellence and kindness. If I can help to clear his name, please feel free to contact me.
Timothy K Sullivan says
Well said, Bill. Today’s cancel culture (a secularized form of shunning and excommunication) is rather long on punishment (of some), quite short on forgiveness for most and with rather vague requirements for what warrants punishment. There is apparently no form of “mea culpa” one can say, or penance one can do, to atone for one’s “sins” and avoid the anger of the mob.
Even if he was the Nesbit who joined (despite not living on the street listed on the application), a lifetime of accomplishments is rendered meaningless. Has any of the cancel crowd chatted with Dr. Wharton? I doubt it.
More troubling are the actions from the two schools concerning Mr. Nesbit. The “evidence” they used to convict him posthumously is, to be polite, beyond skimpy. They speak rather loudly of what passes for “leadership” at MSU and Alma.
Matt Crehan says
If two of the commentators so far had bothered to pay any attention to what was written, the KKK of Newaygo County way back when was quite a different organization than it was in the deep south decades before that. (It is noteworthy that one is unable to use proper grammar; the other fails to leave a last name)
So whether Nisbet ever was a member or not is irrelevant.
The real problem, obviously, is that Political Correctness is devolved into the Cancel Culture. It has been a slippery slope, and appears subtle until eruptions such as this occur.
In this case, discretionary donations to MSU should, in the words of Bill Milliken, “Cease and Desist”, forthwith.
While MSU is running around like a chicken with its head cut-off over a non-issue, there is no doubt that another Nasser like scandal is in the making.
It is now time for the silent majority to speak up. If the next meeting of the MSU trustees was to be jam-packed with those of us who are outraged, perhaps they may reconsider. (HAHAHA)
If not, then its time to do an extensive background check on each and every one of them, along with SS, to see what can be dug up concerning their history.
They are obviously an intellectually limited bunch, as the purpose of education is to explore, analyze, discover, and take the information gained so it can be applied, favorable or not.
While the KKK may not have an illustrious resume, what is relevant is an extensive study of that group, not a knee-jerk reaction to something that is essentially insignificant.
David Nicholas says
Thank you Bill for this piece. As one of the family links for Stephen Nisbet, it has been very troubling for all of us dealing with manner in which this has been handled. Guilty until proven innocent has come to rule our society and good people have become unwilling victims of the so called arbiters of what they define as right and the public good.
Richard Nisbet says
On Friday, September 4, 2020 it was reported in the national media that my Dad, Stephen S. Nisbet, was, in the mid-1920s, a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Fremont, Michigan. Because of that affiliation, his name was removed from an office building at Michigan State University and a residence hall at Alma College. Prior to that date, this information was not known to our family, nor were we given adequate notice of that action by either MSU or Alma in order to conduct our own investigation.
My review of historical information shows the Klan coming to Newaygo County in 1923 to recruit members, but they did not identify as the Klan. Their stated purpose was community betterment and good welfare for citizens of all race, creed and religion. Their effort found a positive response from community leaders in education, health and business, including my father.
I have recently received information from a man who worked closely with my father at Gerber Products in Fremont for many years. He claimed the presence of the Klan in Fremont lasted less than 6 months, as it was soon learned that rather than promoting patriotism and good works, it was divisive in nature, causing my father and other leading citizens to quickly resign.
During his lifetime, my father was an outstanding teacher, Principal and Superintendent at Fremont Schools. After education, during his career as vice-President at Gerbers, he was in charge of the Gerber Foundation which supported funding for many worthy causes, including the United Negro College Fund. He was elected by other delegates as President of the Michigan Constitutional Convention, 1961-62, which enacted the first state civil rights legislation, ahead of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.
My father was a member of the Michigan State University Board of Education, 1964-70, and was a deciding vote in electing Dr. Clifton Wharton as President of MSU, the first Black President of a majority white U.S. university. My father was also on the Michigan state Board of Education and Alma College Board of Trustees for many years.
As I was growing up in Fremont in the 1930s-40s I never heard my Dad mention anything about the Klan, nor did I hear anything of it in the community, schools or media. Yet now, his very brief Klan affiliation has been used to tarnish his honor and reputation. That Alma College and Michigan State University would rescind the honor given to him years ago is an example of our society’s willingness to deny a person’s record of good works if a flaw in their history is found. For that, I am disappointed in Michigan State University and my alma mater, Alma College.
The experience of my father with the Klan nearly 100 years ago does not define the man I knew him to be. I am proud of my father. He lived a full and active life, with many important contributions to our state.
Thomas Lennox says
I’m and Alma graduate and disappointed in this decision. I wonder if any money donated by the Nisbet family, either to Alma or MSU, will be returned with interest?
Stephen P. Nisbet says
Thank you asking about our family donations to Alma. My mother has sustained a student scholarship for many years, but will no longer continue to do so. She wrote a letter to Alma Pres. Abernathy to explain her decision to cancel due to their action taken against my grandfather, but has received no reply.