Another great American died Wednesday: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

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As saddened as we are by Wednesday's death of Apple's co-founder Steve Jobs, we should also note the passing of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a great American and civil rights leader who died early the same day.

In 1957 after Alabama "outlawed" the NAACP, Rev. Shuttlesworth founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with the Rev. Martin Luther King and the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

Despite dozens of arrests and an uncanny ability to survive Klan bombings and savage beatings by the Birmingham police, Rev. Shuttlesworth never achieved the fame or notoriety of his colleagues in the civil rights movement. He'll never be a household name like Mr. Jobs, a technological innovator and billionaire captain of industry.

Rev. Shuttlesworth's fearless legacy of confronting Jim Crow racism with non-violent civil disobedience was more indispensable to American freedom than all of Apple's software applications combined.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was the man who plotted the controversial "Children's Crusade" -- waves of underage school children who endured water hoses, dogs and mass arrests by Birmingham's public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. These young protesters helped fill the jails daily.

The barbaric conduct of the Birmingham police in arresting children and adults was beamed into American homes via the evening news, removing the element of denial about the severity of the nation's race problem.

Rev. Shuttlesworth also was the man who prompted MLK to be more aggressive in his confrontation of institutional racism. Although far less polished than his contemporaries, Rev. Shuttlesworth was the veteran of more appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court than any other troublemaker in American history, according to Andrew Manis, his biographer.

During the Occupy Wall Street protests, demonstrators risking arrest and sometimes manhandling by police are following the same playbook the Rev. Shuttlesworth wrote five decades ago.

Ironically, we can thank Mr. Jobs and his colleagues in the information and social media world for making the technology conveying news of the growing protest movement so ubiquitous.

Instead of waiting for the corporate media to get over its obsession with political horse races, protesters are able to get their stories across to audiences on the Internet with fewer filters. The awakening of the long-dormant American conscience will be televised after all.

"What do they want?" Herman Cain, a GOP presidential hopeful asked earlier this week during an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "I don't have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration."

Because his politics are the antithesis of Rev. Shuttlesworth's, Mr. Cain looks upon any grassroots movement that would attempt to make our political and financial spheres more accountable with deep suspicion. While admitting he has no facts to back up his paranoia, Mr. Cain has no problem giving President Obama credit for a movement far beyond his control.

"Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks," Mr. Cain said. "If you don't have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself."

Alas, the stupidity of racism has been replaced by the stupidity of uncritical belief in the logic of unrestrained wealth as America's biggest sin. Even a survivor of Jim Crow like Herman Cain looks contemptuously on those fighting for freedom from corporate domination.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail forward from a local activist about an event at Market Square scheduled for Oct. 15 that would redeem Rev. Shuttlesworth's faith in the American spirit:

"Last night I attended the first planning meeting for OccupyPittsburgh at the Unitarian Church in Shadyside. There were hundreds of people there!! Mostly youth, but also represented were many from the progressive community, people of color, students, organized labor, and faith-based organizations. The wonderful thing was most of these people I have never spotted on the street before. Many [are] young, educated people who are unable to find a job in this poor economy.

"The time is now to come in support of the Occupation of Wall Street against corporate greed and the 1 percent of this country that remains filthy rich while others struggle to have a decent life. Organized labor here in Pittsburgh is joining to give the movement some extra muscle. ..."

Too bad Rev. Shuttlesworth won't be around to see what happens next.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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