I understand, to some extent, the fact that the world and everyone in it has been consumed with the news of Steve Jobs’ death. I’m not an Apple head, but I can recognize genius when I see it — and lord knows, there are plenty of Apple heads out there. I’m glad, on a human level, that Mr. Jobs was able to be involved with the work he loved up until the very end, and I hope his passing was easy. Other than that, and with great respect, I don’t know that the world needs me trying what to figure out what to say about his death.
However, two other American giants also died yesterday, two men of whom I had literally never heard before, and it might well be because of Steve Jobs’ death that I paid special attention to theirs, learning about their lives as a result.
The first was The Rev. Mr. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights pioneer known for bringing Martin Luther King, Jr. to Birmingham, for surviving multiple attempts on his life, and for never, ever giving up. Here’s some NPR’s obituary:
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a pioneer of the civil rights movement, died Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. Shuttlesworth led Birmingham’s battle against segregation — a battle that focused the national spotlight on the violent resistance to equal rights in the South and forced change. He was 89.
As Birmingham goes, so goes the nation. That belief was the driving force behind Shuttlesworth’s crusade for equality.
“He was the soul and heart of the Birmingham movement,” Georgia Rep. John Lewis said. It was Birmingham, he said, that brought the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in,” Lewis said. “He led an unbelievable children’s crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs that moved and shook the nation.”
When an Alabama judge outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth founded a new organization: the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. A year later, he helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The activities came with a price. He was repeatedly jailed. His home and church were bombed. But Shuttlesworth didn’t back down.
“Instead of running away from the blast, running away from the Klansman,” Shuttlesworth told the documentary Eyes on the Prize, “I said to the Klansman police that came — he said, ‘Reverend, if I were you I’d get out of town fast.’ I said, ‘Officer, you’re not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren if God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration.’ “
Another close call came at the hands of a mob in 1957 when he tried to enroll his daughters in an all-white high school.
“They really thought if they killed me — the Klansmen did — that the movement would stop, because I remember they were saying, ‘This is the leader. Let’s get this SOB; if we kill him it will all be over,’ ” Shuttlesworth recalled in a 1987 interview with NPR’s Susan Stamberg.
After being struck with brass knuckles and bicycle chains, Shuttlesworth said, the doctor was amazed he wasn’t in worse shape.
“I said, ‘Well, doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head,’ ” he said.
One of his last public appearances was at a celebration of President Obama’s inauguration, called “Where History Meets Hope.”
“We get to live free here today because of the work of this man. We celebrate the election of our president because of the work of this man. Give this man the honor he deserves,” Cedric Sparks with the Birmingham mayor’s office said.
Shuttlesworth came out in a wheelchair, a small American flag tucked into his breast pocket, too frail to speak.
The city of Birmingham plans to include his burial site on its Civil Rights Trail.
The second was Derrick Bell, a law professor and civil rights advocate who, the Times says, “was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them,” in protest over racial disparities. These resignations included leaving the Department of Justice in his 20s , over their insistence that he give up his NAACP membership, and leaving Harvard (where he was the first black tenured professor) over hiring practices. Here’s a passage from the New York Times obituary:
Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who saw persistent racism in America and sought to expose it through books, articles and provocative career moves — he gave up a Harvard Law School professorship to protest the school’s hiring practices — died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 80.
Professor Bell, soft-spoken and erudite, was “not confrontational by nature,” he wrote. But he attacked both conservative and liberal beliefs. In 1992, he told The New York Times that black Americans were more subjugated than at any time since slavery. And he wrote that in light of the often violent struggle that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, things might have worked out better if the court had instead ordered that both races be provided with truly equivalent schools.
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 many of those intended to redress past injustices. His 1973 book, “Race, Racism and American Law,” became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition.
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.
Much of Professor Bell’s scholarship rejected dry legal analysis in favor of stories. In books and law review articles, he presented parables and allegories about race relations, then debated their meaning with a fictional alter ego, a professor named Geneva Crenshaw, who forced him to confront the truth about racism in America.
Not everyone welcomed the move to storytelling in legal scholarship. In 1997 Richard Posner, the conservative law professor and appeals court judge, wrote in The New Republic that “by repudiating reasoned argumentation,” scholars like Professor Bell “reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.”
Professor Bell’s narrative technique nonetheless became an accepted mode of legal scholarship, giving female, Latino and gay scholars a new way to introduce their experiences into legal discourse. Reviewing “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” in The New York Times, the Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote: “The stories challenge old assumptions and then linger in the mind in a way that a more conventionally scholarly treatment of the same themes would be unlikely to do.”
Mr. Bell expressed doubts about his legacy, [writing]: “It is not easy to look back over a long career and recognize with some pain that my efforts may have benefited my career more clearly than they helped those for whom I have worked.”
But Professor Guinier, who continues to teach at Harvard, differed with that view. “Most people think of iconoclasts as lone rangers,” she said on Wednesday. “But Derrick was both an iconoclast and a community builder. When he was opening up this path, it was not just for him. It was for all those who he knew would follow into the legal academy.”
I am grateful to live in a world and raise children in a world made better by the likes of Steve Jobs, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Derrick Bell. May their memories be for a blessing, and may all who loved them find comfort.
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