By Wilhelmina Sims
You've probably seen that poster for the movie JUNGLE
FEVER that shows the two entwined hands of a black man and
white woman. What I see is one hand saying "I feel pain" while
the opposite hand is saying "I feel your pain." But reality
is quite different...
When you hear the words "Benton Harbor" what might come
to mind is an elegant town with scenic marinas, manicured
lawns and beautiful homes. Ideal living that consists of art
galleries, rolling vineyards, wide sandy beaches, a superb
array of dining choices from the fastest of food to candlelit
elegance. But not many were familiar with the real town of
Benton Harbor - located along I-94 just 90 miles from Chicago
and Grand Rapids - until last week, when national television
beamed "breaking news" footage of homes engulfed in flames
while angry African-American residents threw rocks and bottles
at the Benton Harbor police.
Anger erupted after Terrance "T-Shirt" Devon Shurn, a popular
black resident of Benton Harbor, was killed during a high-speed
police chase. A Benton Township patrolman pursued "T-Shirt"
into neighboring Benton Harbor - where the police are prohibited
from carrying out high-speed chases - and bumped his motorcycle
into a building. He died at the scene.
A massive explosion of anger hit Benton Harbor's black residents
with a vengeance. This was the third death in two years caused
by a police chase, and the incident, along with allegations
of police brutality and racism - most of Benton Harbor's 12,000
residents are black - set off two days of rioting, leaving
a dozen people injured. Indeed, it was the scene of the worst
rioting in the United States in recent years.
Governor Jennifer Granhom (D) visited the riot scene and
beseeched the crowd to make their pursuits "through peaceful
channels, not destruction". Yet, last Monday and Tuesday nights,
violence was the hand hundreds of African-American residents
used in their pursuit of justice. It was 1960's style "burn
Now consider St. Joseph - the real harbor, just across
the bridge from Benton Harbor. It is a town that is affluent
and segregated. Its population of 8,200 is mostly white. It
is in St. Joseph where tourists and residents browse in quaint
stores, ride on a trolley, shop for yachting gear and dine
in elegance. Flower baskets hang from lampposts as a road
sign on the outskirts welcomes visitors to "A Special Place
On The Lake" - a reference to the beaches along Lake Michigan.
This trendy lake shore community serves as a summer destination
for many affluent Chicagoans, who have set up second homes
and dock their boats in the harbor.
Benton Harbor and St. Joseph draw an invisible racial line
of segregation. Or, as the Reverend Jessie Jackson characterized
it last Friday "a bridge" that defines the disparity between
the two towns. The "bridge" symbolism is so very apparent
as one side represents something that the other side wants.
In spite of the physical proximity of the two cities, when
you arrive in Benton Harbor you might think you are in another
The visual evidence of Benton Harbor's decline is shocking.
Pipestone Street is lined with grand, plantation-style clapboard
houses, all in poor repair with gaping holes where window
frames once were. Abandoned houses, boarded storefronts and
crumbling hotels line the street. The streets themselves are
in horrific disrepair, and city services barely function .
Only 15 new houses were built between 1999 and March 2000,
and 68 percent of the city's housing was constructed before
1959. Residents complain of a lack of education caused by
the collapse of the school system stemming from the industrial
It is a town that was created for reasons that no longer
exist, according to Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Davenport
Institute, at California's Pepperdine University, until "something
like [the Benton Harbor riots] happens and people are suddenly
reminded of their existence".
Benton Harbor in the early 1960's was a bustling steel town
that has withered into an empty shell and its decay is evidenced
by "white flight," unemployment, and drug abuse. The jobless
rate runs over 25 percent. In St. Joseph it is 2 per cent.
The town is part of the depressing era of once proud mid-western
industrial cities that have now been corroded by the decline
of the rustbelt steel, lumbar and coal industries. Over the
course of U.S. history, blacks from the south moved north
in significant numbers only to find that the whites who were
already there gradually started to move over to that "other
side of the bridge."
The Reverend Russell Baker, whose church is one of the two
remaining white congregations in Benton Harbor, reflects on
one of the most tumultuous weeks in Benton Harbor's history.
"Nothing is guaranteed in life. I pray we can come together
and our friends across the river can help us. It all starts
with people, and I believe people on both sides of the river
do care about what happen here."
Well to begin with, why not initiate some "T-Shirt" justice.
All it takes is one Benton Harbor black hand and one St. Joseph
white hand, entwined, for peace. Or at least, that's a start.
Wilhelmina Sims is a Civil Rights Activist and freelance
writer. She can be contacted at Wilhelmina99@earthlink.net