Benton Harbor, Mich., is a town of nearly 11,000 people, about 90 percent of whom are African American. It is a catalog of the misery of the industrial Midwest. It was the headquarters and manufacturing center of Whirlpool, but the last Whirlpool plant closed years ago. Now Benton Harbor has a per capita income of about $10,000 a year. And it is plagued by the ills that accompany poverty in today's America: high unemployment, broke government, failing schools, crime, drugs and despair.
Everything has been stripped from Benton Harbor's residents. The industrial jobs that used to provide a ladder into the middle class have been shipped abroad. The call center jobs that replaced them employ few at a poverty wage. The failing tax base means that public services are starved. The schools struggle to educate children from mean streets; these children are often hungry and without adequate health care or stable homes. The good teachers flee; the schools fail or are taken over, a shuffle that substitutes motion for real action on poverty.
But Benton Harbor may become to economic justice what the small town of Selma was to civil rights. For in Benton Harbor, the powers that be now are wreaking the final indignities on the town's beleaguered residents - stripping them not only of their schools, but of their democracy, taking away not only their jobs, but their public parks.