Last week America lost a man who changed the world. Without him and his visionary leadership it's arguable that I, and millions of people just like me, (including many of you reading this) wouldn't be able to do our jobs as well as so many of the small things in life we now take for granted.
If you just asked yourself, "Fred who?" you're not alone. Though he and Jobs passed away on the same day and both men are credited with spending much of their lives revolutionizing all of ours, you'd hardly know it by the glaring difference in the amount of media coverage each of their deaths received. (Click here to see a list of other celebrities who passed away on the same day.) In the 24 hours following news of their deaths a Google search for "Steve Jobs dies" yielded more than 300 million results, while a search for "Fred Shuttlesworth dies" yielded just 144,000. In the days following the news of their deaths Jobs has graced countless magazine covers. Shuttlesworth has not.
Next to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Shuttlesworth was one of the most important figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Along with King and others, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the most influential civil rights groups in American history credited with making non-violent protest a hallmark of the movement. Shuttlesworth faced two attempts on his life; once when he was severely beaten by Klan members while attempting to integrate the school he wished for his children to attend, another when his home was bombed on Christmas Day. He was hospitalized other times for injuries sustained in his campaign for equality and yet he never wavered from his devotion to non-violence or from his commitment to the cause, ultimately playing a key role in the Freedom Rides. In a nutshell, Shuttlesworth was an American hero who had more courage in his pinky finger than most of us will have in a lifetime, which is why the fact that his death was relegated to the media equivalent of second banana is so unfortunate.
As a Mac loyalist (I own three of them along with two iPods), I can say Steve Jobs definitely made my life better. But Fred Shuttlesworth made my life possible. Without him you probably wouldn't be reading this piece because I would not have grown up in the Southern neighborhood that I did and therefore would not have had the educational opportunities I had or the job opportunities I've enjoyed. Shuttlesworth not only changed my life, he changed our world. Without his efforts, there would likely be virtually no black corporate executives, federal elected officials, not to mention a certain black American president. The list of the doors he opened is a column in itself.
Glancing over Shuttlesworth's death in favor of more in-depth coverage of Jobs would be like if World War II general George Patton passed away on the same day as Philo Farnsworth, credited with perfecting the modern-day television. While we can all probably agree that our lives wouldn't be what they are without TV, we can probably further agree that what to watch on the tube might be the least of our worries had we been conquered by another country.
What's even more disturbing is that the lack of coverage of Shuttlewsorth's death is indicative of a larger trend. According to a study recently published by the Southern Poverty Law Center American student knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement has deteriorated to a startling degree. Which is why it's so incredibly important that we in the media get the story, and amount of emphasis we choose to place on a story, right when we have the opportunity to cover the lives of Shuttlesworth and others like him.
As the Civil Rights Movement's elder statesman age, there is an effort by some to preserve their legacy through the arts. The fantastic new HBO documentary Sing Your Song highlights entertainment legend Harry Belafonte's role as a Civil Rights pioneer while The Mountaintop, a play inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King, just opened to rave reviews on Broadway. Here's hoping that those of us in the media will catch up to Hollywood and Broadway in doing a better job educating the world on those who transformed it into what it is today.
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