“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.