Letter: MSU, Alma College claimed my father was a racist. Here's the real story

The Detroit News

On Sept. 4 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 being 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 mount our own investigation.

My review of historical information shows the Klan coming to Newaygo County in 1923 to recruit members, but it did not identify as the Klan. Its stated purpose was in community betterment and good welfare for citizens of all races, creeds and religions. The effort found a positive response from community leaders in education, health and business, including my father.

My father, Stephen S. Nisbet lived a full and active life, with many important contributions to our state, Nisbet writes.

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 six 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 Gerber’s, he developed 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 state civil rights legislation ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

My father was a member of the Michigan State Board of Trustees, 1964-70, and voted to elect Clifton Wharton president of MSU, the first Black president of a majority white U.S. university. My father was also on the Michigan Board of Education and the Alma College Board of Trustees for many years.

As I was growing up in Fremont in the 1930s and ’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 granted 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 his or her history is found. For that, I am disappointed in Michigan State University and my alma mater, Alma College.

The brief experience my father had 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.

Richard Nisbet, Ann Arbor