The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died earlier this week, but you probably missed the news. It was crowded out by the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
The two men had quite a bit in common, actually. You would not have known it to look at them, or listen to them, but they did.
Jobs in public was a soft-spoken white nerd whose energy and genius changed how we communicate with each other. Even his competitors bowed their heads in real mourning at the news that the 56-year-old had passed away.
Shuttlesworth was a fiery preacher, a black activist who was shot at, arrested, blasted out of bed by bombs, and snubbed by the bigger names in the civil rights movement. He embarrassed some of those polished black leaders. His grammar was sometimes faulty and he had little interest in subtle political maneuvering. But he got them to come to Birmingham, and history was made.
Like a Biblical prophet, he said out loud what God put in his ear, and he was one of the bravest men of our time. Without him the blight of Jim Crow segregation would have poisoned this country even longer. He was 89 when he died, old age taking what Birmingham bully Bull Connor and countless racists could not accomplish.
Connor, you may know, was the police commissioner who became famous for turning dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators, including children, during the well-publicized protests in Birmingham in 1963. Shuttlesworth was one of the injured and Connor told the The New York Times: “I waited a week to see Shuttlesworth get hit with a hose. I’m sorry I missed it.” He added that he wished the minister had been taken away in hearse rather than an ambulance.
Sometimes I marvel at the embarrassment of riches we have in this country; no shortage of heros. This week we lost two. One made it fun and fast to write and say what we think. The other made it safe for everyone, regardless of race, to do those things.
–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
(NOTE: After I wrote this, I read Diane McWhorter’s wonderful column on the subject. She does this topic justice in a way few writers could do. McWhorter is the author of the Pulitzer-winning, “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.” Her piece ran on the NYTimes Opinion Page, 10/7/11, and if you can’t reach it through this link, it is well worth subscribing to the paper. Which–hello?–you should be doing anyway.)