iPriorities: Our Society Misses the Mark Again
I hate to come across in any way that makes it appear as though I am against fondly and respectfully remembering the life and legacy of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, who died this week at the age of 56. He was far too young and it is sad that someone so creative, talented and iconic passed from this life to the next after such a short period of time. But Jobs wasn’t the only one who died on Wednesday. While the Washington Post, the New York Times and other major news outlets (on and offline) blasted news stories and feature presentations related to the death of Jobs, a much smaller headline ran, largely unnoticed.
Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a pioneer and central leader in the United States Civil-Rights Movement died at the age of 89.
His legacy, which included risking his life, being imprisoned, inspiring the work of others who received more credit — such as Martin Luther King, Jr., was remembered with nearly no fanfare, little Internet and media coverage, and only the most nominal of acknowledgements in the press. It was thanks to the reminder of Prof. Ed McCormack of the Washington Theological Union that the significance of Rev. Shuttlesworth’s death really struck a chord. Even I had been swept away with the hype of Jobs’s death — mostly becoming upset with the disturbingly disproportionate attention it received vis-á-vis other world issues — and, although I had been aware of Shuttlesworth’s death, had nearly as quickly forgotten about it as I had heard of it.
Instead of paying the appropriate respect that a man like Shuttlesworth deserves, we — as a society — chose to turn the death of a white male billionaire into a spectacle. I’m not entirely sure what the source of the catharsis is in the metonymic treatment of the Jobs’s death; for what does he represent? Does he represent the young men, the children, the middle-aged citizens of the world who struggle to stay alive this day because of cancer or other terminal illnesses? Does he represent the justice and courage that Rev. Shuttlesworth’s legacy presents to a generation that ignores his passing from this life to the next? I don’t think so. If it were the case, I think I might feel differently about the bizarre behavior that has been exhibited today in what I can only describe as idolatry-turned-normative: the flowers and candles at Apple stores, the reverenced cadence of a Jobs invocation, the treatment of Apple products as second-class relics of a saint who bestowed his blessings on the life of the consumer.
I have nothing against Steve Jobs — in fact, I type these comments on a MacBook Pro — but I am scandalized, frankly, Horrified by the disparity in the treatment of the deaths of two public figures on the same day. Here’s some of what the New York Times said today (Thursday) in its obituary for Rev. Shuttlesworth (which was not easily found on the website, unlike the ubiquitous Jobs-related news).
It was in that city in the spring of 1963 that Mr. Shuttlesworth, an important ally of Dr. King, organized two tumultuous weeks of daily demonstrations by black children, students, clergymen and others against a rigidly segregated society.
Graphic scenes of helmeted police officers and firefighters under the direction of T. Eugene (Bull) Connor, Birmingham’s intransigent public safety commissioner, scattering peaceful marchers with fire hoses, police dogs and nightsticks, provoked a national outcry.
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.
Shuttlesworth is someone for whom we should be hosting candle-light vigils of remembrance and writing blog post after blog post of heartfelt reflection. He is someone who gave of himself, risked his life for others and, even after his death, falls into the subordinated obscurity of a Southern black man who played second-fidle to a white, West-Coast entrepreneur.
Jobs changed the technological landscape that has so irrevocably shifted our own understanding and practice of business, entertainment and communication — but Shuttlesworth risked everything to gain the most basic of rights, without which none of Jobs’s innovations would mean a thing for an African-American person in this country.
Shuttlesworth fought for justice. Jobs fought for market share. Why is it that we’re talking about one of these men and not the other today?
Here’s another short excerpt from the New York Times‘s recounting of Shuttlesworth’s courage and determination in the face of adversity and violence:
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.”
I’m sorry to rain on the parade of the Mac-dirge singers today, but I cannot help but be incredibly disappointed with this sort of celebrity-spectacle. Steve Jobs deserves to be remembered favorably, but at what cost? Who gets forgotten or left aside? What has Jobs done that deserves this sort of reaction?
I think the absurdity reached its height this evening when I saw a well-meaning Catholic campus ministry group announce an “iPhone-lite Memorial Service for Steve Jobs,” exhorting the students to “Come and bring a iPhone or mac product that lights up.” While there may be some students who are shaken up by the realization that Jobs might be a similar age to their parents, and thereby be in need of some sort of ministerial and pastoral care. But, this sort of activity comes across as distasteful when the same sort of assembly is usually called to honor the tragedies of community violence, war, civil unrest, and the ongoing struggle to end injustice in our world. It was precisely this sort of peaceful gathering that Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth would have endorsed to call attention to the ongoing civil injustices in our own day and use that opportunity to speak out and pray for change. What will be the cry of an “iPhone-lite” assembly tonight?
Oh, and by the way, in case you also missed this new story, an elderly half-paralyzed Swedish man, Tomas Transtromer, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature today. Where will we meet to remember him in a few short years when he too embraces sister death?