THE BLOG
10/12/2011 03:35 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2011

Fred Shuttlesworth: Much More Than a Footnote

On Oct. 5, 2011, the United States stopped to remember the life and accomplishments of Steve Jobs. Retrospectives on the brilliant Apple co-founder filled the airwaves and overloaded Twitter. A few hours before I learned of Jobs' death, while at a gathering at a church in Cleveland to work against anti-union legislation in Ohio (Issue 2), I got a text message from my wife on my Steve Jobs-inspired iPhone: civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth had died.

It is not surprising that Shuttlesworth's death was overshadowed by another more prominent and famous figure, just as his legacy in the civil rights movement was often overshadowed by Martin Luther King Jr. While the front page of papers around the nation focused on Steve Jobs, Shuttlesworth's obituary took some persistence to find. If Jobs was above the fold, Shuttlesworth was relegated to a footnote in the news cycle.

But make no mistake about it, Fred Shuttlesworth is far more than a footnote in the struggle for freedom and justice that marked 20th century America.

Shuttlesworth was more than a footnote to Bull Conner, the tyrant who violently enforced Jim Crow segregation in Birmingham, Ala. Conner once said, "Shuttlesworth, you have caused more trouble than any man who ever been in Birmingham, and you've set your people further back than any other man." Perhaps Conner knew that, in the end, Shuttlesworth's courage and passion would set back segregation in Birmingham more than any other man.

Shuttlesworth was more than a footnote in the movement to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. In 1963, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council descended on Birmingham because Fred Shuttlesworth and the people of the city had been causing trouble there for a decade. They laid the groundwork for what many historians believe was the greatest symbolic victory in the entire civil rights movement, as children filled the jails and Bull Conner shamed his city and the nation. The displays of fire hoses and dogs unleashed on children helped convince the nation that significant civil rights laws were not only important, but urgently necessary.

As Shuttlesworth prophetically wrote in July 1962, "someday Birmingham, Alabama, the Johannesburg of America, will become a Mecca of democracy, a paradise of freedom, one in which all Americans can justly take pride all because a few of us were 'crazy' enough to attempt to gain freedom for the rest (and most) of us!" ("Shuttlesworth Says," Pittsburgh Courier, July 7, 1962)

And finally, Shuttlesworth is much more than a footnote for me. As I've grown as an advocate and an organizer for justice, I've often reflected on the courage Dr. Shuttlesworth embodied day by day, year after year. He suffered beatings multiple times, had his home bombed, lived under regular death threats and spent countless days in jail for freedom. Shuttlsworth did not only confess with his lips, he also offered his body, moving beyond speeches to thick action for the sake of Justice.

For Rev. Shuttlesworth, his activism and leadership was always firmly rooted in his Christian faith. When I had the privilege to interview him in 1998, he passionately said: "For you see, my friend, it takes a divine kind of insanity to really get down to know the Lord and serve the Lord and to give yourself to him. And very few people get it." Rev. Shuttlesworth got it. And I pray I get enough of that divine kind of insanity myself to grow in my passion for Jesus and for justice in the years to come.

Thank you, Rev. Shuttlesworth. You will always be so much more than a footnote to those who live for justice in this nation and around the world!