In a twenty-four hour span on Wednesday, three American giants died. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the ultimate Civil Rights activist, had been reported dead first by mid-afternoon on the fifth. Then, in quick succession the media reported two other deaths. Apple co-founder, two-time CEO and 300+ patents Steve Jobs passed around 7 pm. While Civil Rights activist, law professor, critical race theorist and best-selling author Derrick Bell also passed that evening, very quietly.
The media — social, cable and otherwise — dutifully dedicated itself to rolling out every author and person connected to Jobs the Visionary, Jobs the Thomas Edison of the Information Age, Jobs the Innovative Entrepreneur. By 9:30 pm, even my ambivalence about Jobs the Capitalist (as tweeted @decollins1969) would’ve been seen as heretical by the folks whom Jobs had fired over the years, or had their jobs outsourced to China in the past ten years.
No doubt that Steve Jobs, my he rest in peace, was a sort-of Wizard of Menlo Park, California (really, Silicon Valley, but taking poetic license here). But, as much as I love my MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iMovie and iPhoto, and other Apple products I’ve used since I wrote an AP English paper on an Apple IIe my senior year at Mount Vernon High School in ’87. I didn’t get this outpouring of love and sorrow two days ago.
Then it occurred to me that I was watching two stories. One story was of a generation that saw Jobs as the man who fused technological innovation with cultural relevancy, the folks who grew up while Jobs was in the midst of his second coming at Apple. As he remade the niche company into the largest corporation (more or less) in the world. The other story is the media story, the Baby Boomer story of a cultural rebel who made good as an Information Age capitalist while maintaining his Zen-ness, an ultimate cultural outsider-corporate insider.
As much as I think people should admire the late Steve Jobs — and there’s quite a bit to admire about his life — there’s so much more to admire about Shuttlesworth and Bell. Shuttlesworth survived multiple attempts on his life, was threatened too many times to count, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 (along with MLK and others) and helped lead the campaign to integrate Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, among many accomplishments. Rev. Shuttlesworth literally gave his blood, sweat and tears for civil rights and equality, but I didn’t see anyone put a candle on an iPad for him Wednesday night.
Bell, well, I’m a bit more biased about Professor Bell. I met him two years before he published Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Bell gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh Law School (his JD alma mater) in October ’90 on his essay “The Racial Preference Licensing Act,” one that would end up in the book. The idea that racist businesses could opt out of an integrated America by buying a license and paying a race tax in order to deliberately bar Blacks and others of color from their services and jobs, I thought that was truly radical. The slightly older Pitt Law students, Black and White, were up in arms. One went so far as to suggest that Bell was somehow now working for the other side, those who’d like to turn back the clock to the days of Jim Crow.
Through it all, Professor Bell just smiled and joked, and most of all, explained. His story about this Act was a way of getting ahead of the tide of politicians and judges that had been eroding Black gains since the mid-1970s, of moving beyond the crucible of the Civil Rights era — integration at any cost. Bell wasn’t suggesting self-segregation. He was hoping to provoke a larger discussion of the kind of equality Blacks and progressives should hope to achieve in a post-Civil Rights era. One in which all deny racism and racial inequality, but put it in practice in their words and actions every day.
Bell’s ambivalence about the achievements of his generation, about the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, about desegregation, made him the target of traditional Civil Rights royalty — the “How dare you!” crowd. But it made me and many others from the generation that actually remembers the Steve Jobs as the guy that co-built the world’s first personal computer in his garage big fans of Professor Bell.
To turn your back on three decades’ worth of struggle and success because you foresaw the coming storm around race. To bridge the divide between Baby Boomers/ the Civil Rights generation and us post-Civil Rights folks by turning complex legal theories into allegorical stories. To take a stand that costs you your job at Harvard Law to ensure that the next Asian American female candidate would be given a real chance at a job. Bell’s my hero, and I don’t have a lot of people I’d call a hero.
The media might have put Bell and Shuttlesworth at the bottom of their news cycle well — no doubt, race and the media’s consistent attempt to ignore race was a factor here — but it’s up to all of us that they are winched out of that well to the top. And I think that Jobs would agree with that. May they all RIP.