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.