I speak of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founding members (along with Martin Luther King and others) of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the major Civil Rights organizations during the Movement.
In 1956 Rev. Shuttlesworth organized a movement to try to desegregate the buses in Birmingham; in response his house and church were bombed. (People forget that the most important element maintaining Jim Crow wasn't the laws and wasn't social custom, but ongoing terrorist violence and the omnipresent threat of terrorist violence.) In an interview in the (truly remarkable) PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize (episode 1.4, "No Easy Walk"), Rev. Shuttlesworth described what happened next:
They blew the floor out from under my bed, spaces I guess 15 feet. The springs I was lying on, we never found. I walked out from this and instead of running away from the blast, running away from the Klansmen, I said to the Klansmen police that came, he said, "Reverend, if I were you, I'd get out of town as fast as I could." I said, "Officer, you're not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could keep me through this, then I'm here for the duration." I think that's what gave people the feeling that I wouldn't run, I didn't run, and that God had to be there.That, Noble Readers, is courage. The kind of courage that defeated a culture of terrorism such as existed in the Jim Crow South.
Rev. Shuttlesworth died today in his home town of Binghamton, Alabama, at the age of 89. Every American alive today owes him a debt of gratitude.
"Owes him a debt...": I use language which, before having my head spun around by this extraordinary interview with David Graeber, I would have used unthinkingly -- but which, having read not only that but as much of Graeber's work as I could, I now find myself extraordinarily reluctant to use. But at the moment I haven't any other.
How do you pay a debt of gratitude -- a debt to a hero who won his battles, and has now departed from the rack of this tough world?
You pay it forward.
I can't help but think, in connection with Rev. Shuttlesworth's death, of the brave Americans of Occupy Wall Street, who were beaten and maced tonight by the police in New York City. (I can't shake the cynical thought that the cops thought it would be safe to attack tonight since the world would be so distracted by the death of Jobs that they wouldn't notice the attacks on those protesting the death of jobs.) They are paying it forward: by confronting, with Shuttlesworthy courage, a system which, although more amorphous, and more inclined to do its violence at a distance, is as large and intractable and cruel as that which Rev. Shuttlesworth faced down fifty years ago.
May his memory give us hope, and may his example give us courage.
Rest in peace.