A great man died last Wednesday. He overcame innumerable challenges and detractors and helped bring our society into a new era. He will go down as one of America’s revolutionaries, a man who helped build a movement that became a defining element of a generation.
I am not talking about Steve Jobs.
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died in Birmingham on Wednesday at age 89. Shuttlesworth was a major figure of the civil rights movement — he was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s partners during the 1963 campaign for the desegregation of Birmingham. King called him “one of the nation’s most courageous freedom fighters.” In the course of his struggle he was beaten, hospitalized and targeted for murder, yet his resilience — and that of millions of others — ultimately prevailed.
There is something ostensibly obvious about Shuttlesworth’s life story. American children grow up on stories of the civil rights movement — racism, we are told from youth onward, is fated a slow death. It no longer seems exceptional that King, Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks and others accomplished what they did, because we assume it was bound to happen at some point. Desegregation is a topic for history textbooks.
But as Shuttlesworth’s death shows, we are not far separated chronologically from what seems to be ages ago psychologically. It is not the loss of Shuttlesworth’s presence that I find most striking; it is the fact that until last week, he was still among us. History, it turns out, is still alive.
Shuttlesworth’s obituary drives home how important it is to not detach ourselves from our past, to not assume that the faults of our predecessors were so distant from our own time that we need not consider them, to not believe that all will be made right by the arc of history.
It was strange to see his death announced alongside that of Steve Jobs, the architect of a very different kind of revolution. Jobs’ death is, understandably, getting more attention — his revolution is more tangible to our generation. We perceive his legacy as stretching far into the future — the new iPhone was announced just a few days ago — while King’s and Shuttlesworth’s belong to a bygone era.
Yet forgetting the uncomfortable proximity of Jim Crow — or any other historical event that we choose to exclude from our historical pedigree — is little more than a delusion. We do not stand at history’s apex. Someday our generation, too, will be condemned for its sins — perhaps ones that we do not even recognize as such, just as many failed to see the evils of racism in the 1960s.
It is up to us to remember that such things are not predetermined, that we still have a long way to go, that a teleological explanation of events fails to account for the contingencies, coincidences and unmemorialized many who contributed to our conception of how events were destined to unfold.
Fifty years ago King, Shuttlesworth and their allies stood in disbelief and marveled at the energizing effects of their actions throughout the country; now, such things are relegated to textbooks. But the reverend’s obituary serves as a reminder not to forget prematurely about such things, not to dismiss the idea that history connects to something tangible rather than something abstract. To do so would be both tragic and dangerous. The end of history is not yet written, and it suits us to remember that we must meet its challenges with both humility and conviction.