In Memoriam: Fred Shuttlesworth & Derrick Bell

By Arturo R. García

Civil rights activism lost two pioneers Wednesday night with the passing of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and legal scholar Derrick Bell.

The careers of Shuttlesworth – a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Rustin – and Bell, who would become the first black tenured law professor and dean of Harvard Law School, seemed to dovetail at times.

In 1957, three years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Shuttlesworth and his wife, Ruby, famously took their children to Phillips High School in Birmingham, Ala., to break the color barrier. The move came a year after Shuttleworth’s house was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Shuttlesworth escaped the bombing unharmed, but he would not be so fortunate at Phillips, as Ruby was stabbed and, as he recounted for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2003, he was assaulted by a mob:

Each one was hitting and kicking, stomping. I began to realize that on this brilliant day that every time a chain or something would hit my head I would see instant gray. I knew I had to get back to the car.

I noticed that the guy that was sitting next to the car was going to get the last lick with his chain and I felt as if he had having been struck and stomped as much as I had, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get to the car. And I was trying to make up my mind I was just running to him, I don’t know what I was going to do. But anyway I was going to try to get to the car. Here again you must realize you have to figure God does things that you never even thought about. Suppose the door had closed.
Suppose some Klansman had closed the door or suppose as Rev. Woods said, “if it had been me, I would have driven off.” (Laughing) I would have died right there, or if this man had gotten a chance to hit me this one lick I would have been
right there.

But somehow or another as I was struggling being pulled at, tearing my clothes and kicking, the last thing I remember was one guy was standing in front as I was getting ready to go to the door where this man was getting ready to swing, somebody kicked me in the side. And somehow or another as I was falling down I think, another one struck me from in front. I didn’t see the guy with the chain. I wasn’t looking for him. I finally if you remember seeing the film, I fell up into the door with my hand and [a friend] reached over and pulled me into the car. And my feet were sticking out the door. The door was still open as we pulled off to go to the hospital.

That same year, Bell joined the Justice Department’s Civil Rights department, though he would resign in 1959 after being told his membership in the NAACP represented a conflict of interest. He would go on to lead more than 300 desegregation cases, including James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

“I learned a lot about evasiveness, and how racists could use a system to forestall equality,” Bell was quoted as saying. “I also learned a lot riding those dusty roads and walking into those sullen hostile courts in Jackson, Mississippi. It just seems that unless something’s pushed, unless you litigate, nothing happens.”

Neither Bell nor Shuttlesworth had a problem pushing back. The New York Times quoted an e-mail from Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home examined the civil rights movement in Birmingham, saying Shuttlesworth earned the nickname “the Wild Man from Birmingham.”

“Among the youthful ‘elders’ of the movement,” she added, “he was Martin Luther King’s most effective and insistent foil: blunt where King was soothing, driven where King was leisurely, and most important, confrontational where King was conciliatory — meaning, critically, that he was more upsetting than King in the eyes of the white public.”

Mr. Shuttlesworth was temperamental, even obstinate, and championed action and confrontation over words. He could antagonize segregationists and allies alike, quarreling with his allies behind closed doors.

For his part, after Bell moved into the academic world, he became a prolific author – his book Race, Racism and American Law is required reading at law schools across the country – and a leading scholar of Critical Race Theory. He was also a proponent of the Interest Convergence Dilemma: the idea that white people would only get behind black empowerment if they could get something out of it. As he wrote for the Harvard Law Review:

It follows that the availability of Fourteenth Amendment protection in racial cases may not actually be determined by the character of harm suffered by blacks or the quantum of liability proved against whites. Racial remedies may instead be the outward manifestations of unspoken and perhaps subconscious judicial conclusions that the remedies, if granted, will secure, advance, or at least not harm societal interests deemed important by middle‑ and upper‑class whites. Racial justice‑or its appearance‑may, from time to time, be counted among the interests deemed important by the courts and by society’s policymakers.

In assessing how this principle can accommodate both the Brown decision and the subsequent development of school desegregation law, it is necessary to remember that the issue of school segregation and the harm it inflicted on black children did not first come to the court’s attention in the Brown litigation: blacks had been attacking the validity of these policies for one hundred years.” Yet, prior to Brown, black claims that segregated public schools were inferior had been met by orders requiring merely that facilities be made equal.” What accounted, then, for the sudden shift in 1954 away from the separate but equal doctrine and toward a commitment to desegregation?

I contend that the decision in Brown to break with the court’s long‑held position on these issues cannot be understood without some consideration of the decision’s value to whites, not simply those concerned about the immorality of racial inequality, but also those whites in policymaking positions able to see the economic and political advances at home and abroad that would follow abandonment of segregation.

Both Shuttlesworth and Bell were active late into their lives: in 1988, Shuttlesworth started a housing foundation in Cincinatti to help families become homeowners. Ten years later, he was one of the first supporters of The Birmingham Pledge. According to the Times, Bell pushed for a more diverse faculty at both the University of Oregon (where he resigned after an Asian woman was denied tenure) and at Harvard, where he embarked on a two-year leave in protest of the school’s never having hired a black woman.

Bell is survived by his wife, Janet, three sons, two sisters and a brother. Shuttlesworth is survived by his second wife, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, five children, 14 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren, a great-great grandchild, five sisters and two brothers.

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  • Anonymous

    Just wanted to say thanks for posting this.  I’ve been a bit undone by the excessive outpouring of grief that we’ve lost the greatest man of the century, but with neither of these men being mentioned at all.
    Look, it’s fine if you love your Iphone and Ipad, but as a black person I’m not going to act like the ability to post embarrassing pictures of oneself on Facebook 24/7 is the greatest thing since penicillin.Nor will I overlook that the fact that pictures of videos made with those devices still can’t save a black man from being beaten or killed by police, nor will it mean that those people will be punished for their crimes.I appreciate the work that these men and their peers have been carrying out over the past half century and more, because they have really made the world for me and really everyone a better place, and they risked their lives and livelihoods to do it.  Without them, instead of being an Ivy League educated professional with two advanced degrees, I might be cleaning toilets or taking care of someone else’s children.