On a day overshadowed by the coverage of the passing of Steve Jobs, we also lost a civil rights leader who literally took body blows for racial equality. The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a contemporary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis and others who put their lives on the line, died at 89.
In his home base of Birmingham, Alabama, the epicenter of Jim Crow, Shuttlesworth was on the ground organizing weeks of demonstrations involving children, clergy and students who faced the power and wrath of the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city, Bull Connor, who unleashed fire hoses and dogs onto the peaceful demonstrators with the cameras rolling. From the NYT:
The brutality helped galvanize the nation’s conscience, as did the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of a black church in Birmingham that summer, which killed four girls at Sunday school. Those events led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after the historic Alabama marches that year from Selma to Montgomery, which Mr. Shuttlesworth also helped organize. The laws were the bedrock of civil rights legislation.
“Without Fred Shuttlesworth laying the groundwork, those demonstrations in Birmingham would not have been as successful,” said Andrew M. Manis, author of “A Fire You Can’t Put Out,” a biography of Mr. Shuttlesworth. “Birmingham led to Selma, and those two became the basis of the civil rights struggle.”
Mr. Shuttlesworth, he added, had “no equal in terms of courage and putting his life in the line of fire” to battle segregation.
When there is outcry from members of the black community decrying comparisons of the LGBT rights movement to that of the black civil rights movement, this kind of activism and sacrifice is pointed to: [cont’d.]
[F]ew doubted his courage. In the years before 1963 he was arrested time and again — 30 to 40 times by his count — on charges aimed at impeding peaceful protests. He was repeatedly jailed and twice the target of bombs.
In one instance, on Christmas night 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. “The wall and the floor were blown out,” Ms. McWhorter wrote, “and the mattress heaved into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet.”
When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”
It’s an unnecessary zero-sum game to say that one’s level of sacrifice for human rights should be equivalent in suffering to achieve equality. Human rights are human rights regardless. But leaders of the LGBT movement has to stop, listen and understand why it’s hard to listen to emotion behind the rejection of the comparison.
Aside from direct action arrests we’ve seen GetEqual and other grassroots groups, LGBT faces of “activism” have been people who have perished because of violent anti-LGBT persecution — Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Gwen Araujo, Lawrence King, etc. Aside from Milk, a public official and activist, most of our icons were not public figures engaged in any action aside from being a living human being. In the U.S., current visible leadership in the fight for LGBT equality don’t have to deal with their houses being bombed, face jail time, or are the victims of repeated bloody beat-downs. Most live a comfortable existence in gay enclaves and work within the political system.
That’s why you see the comparison can seem raw to those who have lived through the black civil rights movement; I understand that as someone who is both black and gay and live in the South, and whose grandparents were part of the movement in North Carolina. But trying to “rank worthiness” isn’t a universal viewpoint, as you know, because two of the strongest allies for the LGBT rights movement have been Julian Bond and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA).
I didn’t get to meet Rev. Shuttlesworth; nor have I had the pleasure of meeting Julian Bond, who served as Chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2010 (though we have corresponded).
I did meet (and was awe-struck by) Congressman John Lewis, who, like Shuttlesworth, was savagely beaten within an inch of his life for equality. It was at Equality Alabama’s 2009 dinner where Lewis spoke of sacrifice and doing what it takes to achieve equality for LGBTs. From my post:
Rep. Lewis spoke eloquently about the simplicity of the government staying out of the lives of gay and lesbian couples — there is no need to “save” marriage from two people who simply want to love one another and be legally affirmed in the same way that heterosexual couples are when they marry.
But perhaps the most powerful message was to those in the LGBT community who are waiting for equality to come to them — Lewis charged us to seize the moment, do not accept being told to wait your turn, to demand your rights through your representative, and most of all take personal responsibility — the message we all heard was loud and clear. Too many LGBTs are in the closet waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting and LEAD. We are all capable of leading by kicking that closet door open. The main meat of the speech begins around 5:00 — and you will want to hear it all. The man had the audience spellbound.
John Lewis could have let someone else take the baton to the head for his rights. He didn’t; his rights were too important to him to NOT lead by example. I asked State Rep. Patricia Todd thought of his wake up call to our community. She agreed that there is no excuse for our so-called leaders, our elected representatives who say they are our allies but lack the political spine to do the right thing should watch this speech as required education. But we also noted to one another that even more critical was Lewis’s call to you – those of us who rail about what someone else can do to lead or move the ball forward and don’t step up, or take even small steps to be interested in determining the fate of your civil rights. Where is the fire in the belly of our movement? It’s not in DC, it’s all of you, if you choose to do a tenth, hell, one-hundredth of what John Lewis showed in terms of personal courage to fight for his rights against hostility day and night.
When Kate and I go to visit her family, we land in Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport renamed in his honor in 2008. The work of people like Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth will never be forgotten. It’s hard to know whether that level of sacrifice for equality will be repeated for any human rights movements in this country, but we are well-aware that LGBT activists around the world, like the murdered David Kato in Uganda, face the kind violence and death Shuttlesworth faced on a daily basis.