U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Two Deaths: Whiggery vs. "Great Men" in Contemporary US Public Memory

Last Wednesday, October 5, 2011, two Americans of great historical significance passed away: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Steve Jobs.*  Shuttlesworth’s death was announced in the morning.  His memory was quickly framed by his relative lack of fame compared to the one civil rights leader that all Americans know.  “Marching in the shadow of Dr. King”–which would serve as the title of Diane McWhorter’s NYT op-ed the next day–was the theme of most of the news stories that morning about Shuttlesworth, which rightly focused on his crucial importance to the movement in his home base of Birmingham, Alabama. If Shuttlesworth seemed–then and now–to be in King’s shadow, he shouldn’t be remembered that way.  For it was Shuttlesworth who convinced an initially reluctant King to take the movement to Birmingham following the SCLC’s failed 1961 campaign in Albany, Georgia.  And when the focus finally did shift to Birmingham in 1963, the clashes between peaceful protestors and the violent police force under the direction of Bull Connor helped galvanize national opinion in favor of civil rights.
But if Shuttlesworth in life marched in King’s shadow, in death he would soon find himself in Steve Jobs’s.  When Steve Jobs’s death was announced in the evening, the news coverage immediately began to focus more on the entrepreneur and technological innovator than the civil rights leader.  Jobs’s fame had been greater–and more recent–than Shuttlesworth’s. And the changes that he wrought in American life were also more recent.  Most Americans take the lack of racially segregated public facilities entirely for granted.  We are, for better or for worse, more amazed by our iPads. 

Rather predicatably, Jobs dominated the frontpages of the nation’s papers the following morning. The traditionally staid Wall Street Journal gave him a six-column headline.  But from the moment that Jobs’s death was announced, a dissenting view began appearing online that Shuttlesworth was simply the more significant figure…and that all the focus on Jobs revealed what a hopelessly materialistic, shallow, and/or forgetful culture we had become.  Certainly a common theme among African American writers online rang true: without Jobs, they wouldn’t have their MacBooks; but without Shuttlesworth they wouldn’t have their freedom.  But I was most struck by a notion that I saw in a number of comments on websites and on Facebook to the effect that, while we’d still have personal computers without Jobs, African Americans wouldn’t have civil rights without Shuttlesworth. I found this argument fascinating precisely because I think it takes a Whiggish attitude I find from many of my students about the Civil Rights Movement and applies it, exclusively, to the technological revolutions of the last several decades. By positing that a change was essentially an inevitable result of inevitable social or technological progress, the contributions of (potentially) “Great Men” can be ignored or downplayed.  
Both the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and the technological revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century are the kinds of changes that so transformed American society that they are very easily naturalized and made part of the kind of Whiggish narrative of progress that constitutes the backbone of American public memory (when it’s not in the jeremiad-laced apocalyptic mode, at any rate).  In such stories of inevitable progress, the risks taken by important historical actors can easily get forgotten. But they are both also precisely the sorts of stories that we like to tell in terms of a tiny handful of Great Leaders who are imagined as bringing them about. What Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were to the turn of the last century, Jobs and Bill Gates are to the turn of this one.  And King (occasionally assisted by Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and, once he became a major motion picture, Malcolm X) plays a similar role in the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement.
My own view is that virtually nothing in history is inevitable.  Movements and social and cultural forces, featuring many important actors beyond the tiny handful of leaders let into the pantheon of public memory, are necessary to produce changes like the civil rights and technological revolutions.   While it is as wrong to understand the modern personal computer as the creation of Steve Jobs, Solitary Genius, as it is to see the phonograph and motion picture as emerging fully formed from the head of Thomas Edison, that does not mean that the real contributions of either should be ignored.  And the nature of obituaries is that they focus on individuals and their contributions, not movements and social forces.  It’s certainly unfortunate that Fred Shuttlesworth’s extraordinary and often under-appreciated work in the black freedom struggle once again became overshadowed on the day of his death. Like Jobs, his extraordinary individual accomplishments deserve to be remembered and celebrated 
But in a sense the greatest importance of rescuing Shuttlesworth from (public semi-) obscurity was that doing so encouraged the public to look beyond the leaders they already knew, not simply to a larger handful of leaders, but to the civil rights movement as whole. And to foster such a richer public memory of a social movement we will never be able to rely on obituaries. 
* In fact, a third significant American also died that day, legal scholar and critical race theorist Derrick Bell.  Like Shuttlesworth, Bell was a figure of some importance in the ongoing civil rights movement. Though early in his career he was, briefly, the only African American in Eisenhower’s Justice Department (he was asked to resign his membership in the NAACP so as to avoid appearing to have a conflict of interest; he quit his federal job instead), he became best known as a legal academic, who reached his greatest fame as a scholar–and protester against Harvard Law School’s hiring policies–in the 1980s.  But it’s taking little away from Bell to say that he was a less consequential figure than Shuttlesworth.  And even more than Shuttlesworth, public memory on the day of his passing fell victim to the coincidence of more famous men dying on the same day.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Ben. My thoughts on the reaction to the death of Jobs: that it confirms the American propensity to fetishize technology; we’re all technological determinists.

    Thanks for mentioning the passing of Derrick Bell in your footnotes. The overshadowing of his death struck me more than the overshadowing of Shuttlesworth’s, but that’s likely because I’m in the midst of reading all of Bell’s work in preparation for a paper I’m giving on him at this year’s AHA, titled, “The Permanence of American Racism: Harvard, Derrick Bell, and the Origins of Critical Race Theory.” It will be part of a great panel titled, “Black Ivy: African American Intellectuals at Harvard during the Twentieth Century.

  2. For me personally, while each of these men had an impact on my life, I might be inclined to say Bell had the most significant direct impact on me. By the time I was born, Shuttlesworth’s most significant work was in the past and he along with a legion of others had created an America where I could go to school and be expected to achieve, even go to graduate school, as a black person. Job’s most significant innovations would take place after I became acquainted with personal computers and while the Apple stuff is nice to look at, other companies have provided the backbone of my electronics usage. But in the academy it is the tireless work of Bell and his fearlessness in continuing to shine a light on inequality that has had the greatest impact as I have pursued a Ph.D. and tenure track positions.

  3. I had never really thought of Great Man theory as being antithetical to Whiggism, but perhaps they are opposed on some level. Ben’s commentary certainly points to some tension between them.

    I suggested to someone who complained about the attention Jobs’ death received at the expense of Rev. Shuttlesworth’s death, that this was due in part to the fact that Jobs’ was one of them. Apple is big in the media, it has that standing and cachet for being part of the entertainment business, the media industrial complex, whatever. He certainly had an outsize influence on the dissemination of information, and as that’s the business the media is in, it’s natural they’d make a big deal about his death.

    One could, on the other hand, argue that Jobs’ death merited all the attention it received because he was a figure of greater historical stature and significance than Rev. Shuttlesworth. That obviously is not the view Keli Goff espouses in her Huffington Post essay which Ben links to.

    “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.”

    Apart from being logically and historically confused (the last sentence is a non sequitur), this attitude gets it exactly backwards is historically naive to boot. Goff has the forest in front of her – “our lives wouldn’t be what they are without TV” – but she can’t see it through the trees. The whole point of Farnsworth’s “achievement” (and Farnsworth is someone who gets overlooked not least because television as invention and institution did have many fathers) is that television did change our lives: it changed our society, our culture, our economics, our politics. Try imagining post-war America without television. Yeah, I gave up after eight seconds, too. Patton vs. Farnsworth is an interesting, if fatuous, thought experiment. But Patton vs. television? That’s not a thought experiment, it’s a psychotic episode.

  4. (cont’d.)

    Once we clear away the flotsam and jetsam of the moment, what remains is a confrontation with basic issues of historical philosophy, such as: the nature of historical causation, the role of individuals in history (“great men”), the existence of progress, the role of fame and reputation in history, and, ultimately, the weighing, that is, the moral valuation, of historical achievements, which is a product of all the aforementioned.

    At bottom this is an argument about who – and what – counts more in history. This is an old debate. Recall the famous episode in 1791 when Jefferson invited Adams and Hamilton for dinner. During the conversation, Jefferson stated his conviction that Bacon, Locke, and Newton were the three greatest men the world had produced. Said Hamilton in reply, Julius Caesar. We think now that Jefferson had the better claim, but Hamilton’s view was the popular one until about 1700.

    Bacon himself declared in his Essays that statesmen and founders of states and empires were the greatest figures in history. But then a few years later in the Advancement of Learning he added another category and said that those who had used their gift of divine reason to benefit mankind were worthiest of glory and renown. We’d call such people philosophers, inventors, and scientists. Jobs we can categorize, but what about Rev. Shuttlesworth? Prophet? Moral leader? Hero?

    We strike the historical fundament quickly here. Who’s greater? Mohammed or Gutenberg? Christ or Newton? Plato or Napoleon? Or let’s take an example that was in the news recently by the historical example that both men were born on the same date 200 years ago: Lincoln or Darwin? How do you decide? I’ve spun this out a lot, but at bottom the debate over the coverage of the deaths of Jobs and Rev. Shuttlesworth isn’t only or even mostly about the state of American media. It is, in fact, about history, how we make it, use it, perceive it. Thus I would aver, that one’s stance in this controversy is indicative of one’s views regarding a far greater, that is, the nature of history itself.

  5. Thanks for all the comments! Lots of additional food for thought.

    I’ve just a couple things to add in (vague) response.

    First, I think the case of Jobs is complicated by the fact that his greatest business successes are associated with gadgets–the iPod, iPhone, and iPad–that are in many ways most notable as objects of industrial design. In addition to the fact that it’s easy to minimize the value or significance of industrial design (especially in one’s recent past) these gadgets, as gadgets, seem rather ephemeral. Perhaps they will turn out to be; perhaps they won’t. Time will tell.

    Jobs’s more significant claims to fame at this point rest on his earlier career, when he helped create the personal computer as we know it. The two key innovations here were the Apple II and the Macintosh (and MacOS). To take the latter case, Jobs, for the first time, marketed two key technologies–the mouse and GUI–to the general public. And in so doing, he transformed personal computing.

    The many comments I’ve read that in effect say “I’m a PC user, so Jobs doesn’t matter to me” profoundly miss the point. Whether you work in Windoze, OS X, or Linux, your computing experience is what it is in large measure due to Jobs.

    Had Apple gone belly up in the 1990s (as it might have had Jobs not returned and played out the last act of his career), Jobs might be a much more obscure figure today. But much of his achievement would still stand. In a way, Apple’s and Jobs’s extraordinary successes over the last fifteen years almost mask what are, at this point at any rate, the most significant aspects of his career.

  6. The second thing I wanted to add concerns Derrick Bell.

    The late 1980s, when Derrick Bell was loudly protesting Harvard Law School’s unwillingness to hire more female and non-white professors (leading up to his leaving Harvard in protest in 1990), was a period when many people in my college class were attending, some at HLS.

    For a number of women and African American students I knew who attended HLS in those years, Bell was an absolutely critical and deeply admired figure. Lani Guinear’s description of him as a community builder and the picture of him walking surrounded by beaming Harvard students following his decision to take that 1990 leave of absence (both featured in the NYTimes obit linked above) very much capture the sense of the man I got from these friends.

    Barack Obama was a member of the HLS Class of ’91. I wonder what memories the President has of Bell…though at this point my guess is that it wouldn’t profit him politically to share them with the public.

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