Left to right: MLK, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy:
founders of the SCLC
founders of the SCLC
On Wednesday, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth died at the hard-fought age of 89. There are obituaries everywhere that describe the life and legacy of this great civil rights leader, the last of the movement's "Big Three" founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or SCLC (1957) to pass away.
Here I want to point out briefly a few things that stand out to me about Shuttlesworth and the work of racial reconciliation and social justice.
First of all, there are many ways to do that work. Lots of whites back then hated King, but a lot of whites liked him much more than Shuttlesworth. King struggled constantly to be as conciliatory with whites as possible, to enlist the better angels of their nature in achieving racial equality in America. Shuttlesworth was much more confrontational both in his preaching and his social activism, demanding racial equality now, whether whites felt consoled or not, and at times this put him at odds with King.
"Shuttlesworth and King were the two major axes of the SCLC part of the movement. Shuttlesworth was in the vanguard of direct action, pushing towards confrontation. King was the person who could really deal with white people and was more conciliatory. The two of them together formed a dialectic that drove the movement forward." Diane McWhorter, 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Carry Me Home."
Shuttlesworth, said Diane McWhorter, was just as important to the civil rights movement as was King. Two different men, and two different approaches. But both contributed to a freer America for which I am grateful.
Second, the work of racial reconciliation and social justice is NOT over. Shuttlesworth understood this and in 2004 he tried to reinvigorate the Southern Christian Leadership Conference calling for greater social activism. With studies showing that the current decline of the middle class, home ownership and financial net worth impacts blacks more than whites, or that whites get job call backs at twice the rate of equally qualified blacks -- even by government and private employers that advertise, "Equal Opportunity Employer", one can understand Shuttlesworth's belief that the work of civil rights is not over.
Third, the civil rights movement is not what it used to be. An example of this is the fact that the SCLC ousted Shuttlesworth's and his vision for greater activism.(1) The SCLC ousted one of its founders. Would that qualify as ironic?
Fourth, it is always easy to admire non-conformist prophetic persons from the safety of historical distance. What Bible-believing Christian will say that the Hebrew prophet Amos was not a true prophet of God for social justice? But would we want him to appear and preach to America today?
Do we not admire William Wilberforce who fought long and hard to end the slave trade? But would we have admired him if we had lived during his time?
The former female slave Sojourner Truth traveled and preached against the discrimination of women in voting, employment and more. That was something that even recently freed black men weren't ready for. But she is acknowledged today as an important figure in the vanguard of abolition and equality. Of course she is. She is no longer dangerous.
The 16th century Spaniard Bartolome de las Casas arrived to the New World as a conquistador. But he became a monk and champion of the love of God and protector of the Indians against his own oppressive countrymen. Today he is admired as the great "Apostle to the Indies" and so is his missiology or theology and methods of missions. But in his own day, nobody wanted him around, and his writings were placed on the official Catholic list of banned books.
On Wednesday, the 5 of Oct 2011, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth passed away. The world can rest easier now. For Shuttlesworth has now become another in a long line of historical prophets of social justice. He is part of history. He is now safe to admire.
(1) Elaine Woo, http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-fred-shuttlesworth-20111006,0,752108.story