By Bill Webb
They both died on Wednesday, Oct. 3. One man was well-known for his creativity and technological innovation. But many people might not have known the other individual, who stood with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy as the third of what some called the “Big Three” of the civil rights movement. Both men impacted this country and the world. And one successfully challenged the soul of the nation.
News of the death of 56-year-old Apple icon Steve Jobs spread like wildfire over radio, television, email, Twitter, Facebook and daily print publications. After years of battling pancreatic cancer, the CEO and tech genius who apparently guided every step of every new Apple product quietly passed away, surrounded by his immediate family.
I learned about the death of civil rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth when I read about it on the website of Associated Baptist Press. Only after I googled the 89-year-old’s name did I spot reports on Shuttlesworth’s death and his remarkable life in the civil rights movement.
In our world, it is hardly surprising that Jobs won top billing in the news on Oct. 5. His net worth was estimated at $7 billion, and he undoubtedly helped thousands of other people become millionaires. The wildly popular products he pioneered — including Macintosh computers, iPods, iPhones and iPads — were good for the economy and sold well even during economic downturns. In many ways, these products continue to be used for good, including in ministry settings.
The tech genius also had a mystique and an aura about him. He kept his 2004 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer a secret until his body began to show signs of its progression. He was secretive about every new product and every incarnation of previous products. Employees who dared to leak information soon regretted it.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Fred Shuttlesworth outlived Jobs by about 33 years, even though he regularly found himself in harm’s way. By his own count, the pastor and activist was bombed twice, beaten into unconsciousness and jailed more than 35 times.
Shuttlesworth grew up in Birmingham, Ala., studied for the ministry at Selma University and was pastor of a church in Selma until he returned to Birmingham in his early 30s to become pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.
In Birmingham, the pastor became a civil rights activist. He spoke out for the hiring of African-American police officers and participated in voter registration drives with the NAACP. He became the nemesis of Birmingham’s racist police chief, Bull Connor.
With Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and advanced its agenda of non-violent resistance at his own peril. Still, he was the least known of what became known as the “Big Three” of the civil rights movement.
Alan Bean recollected a chapel preaching visit Shuttlesworth made to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in 1978. I was present and, like Bean, I had never heard of Fred Shuttlesworth as he stood to address an audience made up mostly of Southern white students and professors. Like Bean, I recall Shuttlesworth’s slow start but also remember him hitting his stride and telling his spellbinding story in thundering tones as his audience warmed up with him.
The moment might have been powerful for Shuttlesworth’s outstanding preaching, but what impressed young seminarians like me was the authenticity and the courage of a preacher-prophet who had successfully challenged the soul of a sick nation. His was a voice we needed to hear.