It is sometimes easy to forget the racial caste that was perpetuated by law in this country from its founding to the midpoint of the 20th century. Every so often, usually as result of some racially charged incident or the thoughtless remarks of an elected official or celebrity, we are reminded of the torturous road to justice and equity traveled by members of a courageous generation that challenged the hypocrisy of Jim Crow. Our memories are jarred, however, when we hear of the passing of giants from that era; men and women who valiantly put their lives and careers at risk to bring about change in America.
It is in that spirit of loss that we recall the lives of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Law Professor Derrick Bell, two civil rights icons who passed away this week. Their deaths coming just two weeks before the dedication in Washington, D.C. of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall, it is as if God is collecting his chosen few for their duly earned rest. Rev. Shuttlesworth and Professor Bell are from an era in which African-American leaders stood on principle, put their lives and personal standing at risk, and sacrificed much for the greater good. There are not enough statues, memorials or naming of streets that could sufficiently pay homage to these brave souls. They were giants, and when giants leave us, they leave behind a huge imprint and challenge those of us who remain behind to walk their path.
Rev. Shuttlesworth and Professor Bell transcended their professions and found their “calling” fighting for justice and equity. Each man, in his own way, rewrote the rules and refused to accept that America could not be better. Rev. Shuttlesworth took the Gospel of Jesus Christ from behind the pulpit to the streets, and practiced a revolutionary faith that was invested in Biblical teachings to stand up for the least among us. His faith was not confined to a church or singularly focused on the Sunday morning worship hour. Rev. Shuttlesworth took his faith to the courthouse door in the incendiary and racist atmosphere of Birmingham, appropriately dubbed “Bombingham” for the city’s hostility toward African-Americans, and confronted a symbol of hate, Sheriff Bull Connor. We now take for granted that in the 1950’s to take on white supremacy was the equivalent of signing your own death certificate. The courage of Rev. Shuttlesworth can only be understood from the perspective of a faith-driven life, fearless in the face of death, and unshakable in his belief in the humanity of man. If Dr. King is the symbol of the civil rights movement, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is its heart.
By all accounts, Derrick Bell had reached the mountaintop of his profession, becoming the first Black tenured professor at Harvard Law School. Never leaving his commitment to justice and equity behind, Bell took issue with the lack of Black women on the faculty and eventually departed Harvard. For many people the very thought of sacrificing a dream job over principle is unfathomable. For Derrick Bell, it was simply the right thing to do and borne from conviction. After all, he had taken a similar stand early in his career when he left a job at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice when he was told to resign his membership in the N.A.A.C.P. because his superiors claimed it was a conflict of interest. Bell refused and resigned. Professor Bell was no “Ivory Tower” academic; he saw the law as a living and breathing instrument of social change, and used his keen intellect and scholarly aptitude to literally fashion a different course of study. As an architect and pioneer of “critical race theory,” Bell advocated for the consideration of how racism impacted the law and the nation’s legal hierarchy. An accomplished author, Bell penned several brilliant books and essays that were not buried in legalese but used storytelling to confront racial conflict in America.
The deaths of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Professor Derrick Bell should remind those of us who are still here of America’s unfinished business. Each of us, in our own way, must find the courage these two men exhibited and walk the path that they have trod. Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to these two giants and the African-American community must honor their lives by upholding their legacies.