Our father and grandfather, the late James Nettleton, a former patent attorney, served on the Benton Harbor School Board during the critical years of 1967-1971. If past is prologue, review of the Benton Harbor desegregation cases and our family history provides context for the precarious status of the Benton Harbor Areas Schools today.
In 1977, U.S. District Court Judge Noel Fox found the BHAS Board guilty of enabling segregation. The following year, Judge Fox also ruled the “…segregation existing within Benton Harbor district was the result of purposeful and intentional acts committed by...” the Coloma and Eau Claire school districts, the governor of Michigan, the attorney general of Michigan, the Michigan State superintendent, the Michigan Board of Education and the Berrien County Intermediate School District. These rulings came a decade after filing of the case in 1967 by plaintiffs represented by the NAACP.
The remedy included creation of a desegregation planning committee and corrective action of student transfers out of Benton Harbor. But it was too late. Those with resources, predominately white, had long left Benton Harbor for surrounding communities. By 2002, U.S. District Judge Douglas Hillman ruled remaining achievement gaps in BHAS students were attributable to poverty and not the vestiges of segregation.
Our father and grandfather advocated for a metropolitan school district through consolidation of Lakeshore, St. Joseph, Benton Harbor, Coloma, Eau Claire and Watervliet school districts – the only one of 12 redistricting plans affirmed in U.S. District Court that would not have substantially increased segregation. The plan was not adopted. It was as radical an idea then as it is now.
In 1978, when asked in U.S. District Court whether violence justified leaving Benton Harbor, our father and grandfather testified, “I felt that in order to resolve the problems, the entire community in which the problems arose should confront them rather than turn their backs on them in hopes of avoiding them.” He kept his three children in the district. “I felt the people should stay,” he said. This decision influenced his son to become a Presbyterian minister and his grandson to practice medicine and public health.
We call for a year of Jubilee for BHAS, a release of debt without strings attached. We recognize the need to balance the individual liberty, desire and urgency of placing students in higher-performing schools with the long term need for systems building and the future common good. We are not citizens of Benton Harbor and do not purport to speak for current teachers, families and students of BHAS. But our family’s experience suggests the onus for improved academic achievement and community success lies not just with Benton Harbor residents and the state of Michigan. The onus for change also lies with the surrounding communities, including St. Joseph. As our father and grandfather testified, “This district (BHAS) would have worked if the people in the total community had wanted it to work.”
Dr. William Nettleton is a resident of Kalamazoo. The Rev. Douglas Nettleton (retired) is a 1973 graduate of Benton Harbor High School and resident of Battle Creek.