WMU News

Author to describe race issues using controversial Michigan case

April 2, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- The author of a best-selling book that details deep racial divisions that surfaced in two Southwest Michigan communities after the death of a local teen will discuss his work in a Tuesday, April 14, talk at Western Michigan University.

Alex Kotlowitz, whose book, "The Other Side of the River," has been attracting national media attention since its publication in January, will speak at 2 p.m. in the Kirsch Auditorium of the Fetzer Center. The former Wall Street Journal reporter and winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Journalism will describe his investigation into a death that shook two communities and served as a focal point for his examination of race relations in the United States.

Kotlowitz spent five years investigating the death of 16-year-old Eric McGinnis of Benton Harbor. The youth's body was discovered in the St. Joseph River in 1991, sending predominantly black Benton Harbor and predominantly white St. Joseph into a dispute over the cause of death -- accidental drowning or murder. Kotlowitz's in-depth examination of the case through the eyes of community members on both sides of the river has been praised by reviewers across the nation, who have described it as "riveting" and "a saddened, sympathetic portrait of two Americas."

Kotlowitz, a Chicago area resident, also is the author of a 1991 best-selling book, "There Are No Children Here." That story about two boys growing up in a Chicago housing project won critical acclaim and has been hailed as a classic tale about the impact of urban poverty. In 1993, "There Are No Children Here" was adapted into a television movie produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. In his talk at WMU, Kotlowitz will describe how his first book influenced his decision to write a book about race relations in the United States and the trepidation he brought to that effort.

Kotlowitz is a journalist who wrote about urban affairs and social issues for the Wall Street Journal for 10 years. Before joining that paper's staff in 1984, he was a freelance writer who contributed to the New York Times, the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour and National Public Radio as well as numerous magazines. He happened upon the McGinnis case while visiting the Benton Harbor and St. Joseph communities in 1992 to gauge public reaction to the original Rodney King verdict.

Since publishing "The Other Side of the River," Kotlowitz has been the subject of reviews and news stories by such news organizations as Time, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, NPR's "Afternoon Edition" and CBS's "Sunday Morning."

The book also has sparked dialogue in the two communities since its publication. Kotlowitz stays in touch with developments in Southwest Michigan and says it's gratifying that his work has triggered efforts at real communication between people in both cities.

"It is incredibly rewarding to me to know that the conversations have not focused on Eric's death, but on the long-standing divisions between the communities," he says.

During his WMU presentation, Kotlowitz will speak for about an hour and a half, answer questions about his work and autograph copies of his books. Both books will be available for purchase at the event.

Kotlowitz's visit to WMU is sponsored by the Institute for Leadership Transformation, the deans of the Colleges of Education and Health and Human Services, the Departments of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology and Sociology, the Schools of Nursing and Social Work, the Division of Minority Affairs, the Black Americana Studies Program and the Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations.

For more information about Kotlowitz's visit, persons should contact Dr. Joanne Ardovini-Brooker, research associate in the Institute for Leadership Transformation, at (616) 387-8378.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland; cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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