Two other important men died this week, neither of them as rich or famous or white as Apple founder Steve Jobs, but I didn’t want to let their deaths—and profound contributions to our society—to get lost in the tributes to Jobs and his work.
The first was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the great leaders of the American civil rights movement. Born into rural poverty in Alabama, he worked as a truck driver until he could become an accredited minister. While his friend Martin Luther King Jr. was seen as the intellectual and persuasive force of the movement, the physically tough and confrontational Shuttlesworth was its field marshall and gladiator. Dr. King described Shuttlesworth as “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.” Alabama’s first black federal judge U.W. Clemon, told the Washington Post that Shuttlesworth was utterly fearless in his activism, despite being repeatedly beaten, bombed out of his home, and living with constant death threats: “He was the first black man I knew who was totally unafraid of white folks.” After the deaths of King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Shuttlesworth was the last surviving member of the Civil Rights “Big Three” ministers, seen here:
After the fervor of the 1960s, Shuttlesworth remained a passionate activist for economic and social justice. In 1988, he founded the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation to help low-income families become homeowners, and in 2004 he became president of the SCLC. But although he’d helped found that organization, he could not reconcile his uncompromising principles with what he saw there, and resigned within months, saying “deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organization.” In 2004, the city of Birmingham renamed its airport in Shuttlesworth’s honor, and in 2007 he joined a memorial march on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where demonstrators were beaten and tear-gassed in 1965. In that march, Reverend Shuttleworth’s wheelchair was pushed by then-Senator Barack Obama.
Less well-known than Shuttlesworth but also a key player in America’s battle against racism and injustice was Professor Derrick Bell, an attorney and legal scholar who was Harvard’s first black tenured professor of law and later the first black dean of a law school at a college that was not a HBCU. Bell’s New York Times obituary said:
He was a pioneer of critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even those intended to lessen the effects of past injustice. Mr. Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy,” said Lani Guinier, the first black woman hired to join the Harvard Law School’s tenured faculty, in an interview on Wednesday.
At a rally while a student at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama compared Professor Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks.
Mr. Bell’s core beliefs included what he called “the interest convergence dilemma” — the idea that whites would not support efforts to improve the position of blacks unless it was in their interest. Asked how the status of blacks could be improved, Mr. Bell said he generally supported civil rights litigation, but cautioned that even favorable rulings were likely to yield disappointing results and that it was best to be prepared for that.
Bell was also known for taking a hard personal line against perceived racial injustice—even when it cost him his own paycheck. As a young lawyer at the US Department of Justice, he was told that his membership in the NAACP might lead to a conflict of interest, and was told to resign it. Instead, he resigned from the DOJ. In 1985, he resigned his deanship at the University of Oregon School of Law when an Asian woman was denied tenure. He returned to Harvard but said he would take an unpaid leave of absence until they hired a black woman to join their tenured faculty, something the school had never done. When, after two years, they still hadn’t, he quit.
Both Derrick Bell and Fred Shuttlesworth were men of principle who devoted their lives to social justice and racial equality. They worked in different arenas, but both lived out their core beliefs in very active and personal ways.