From the Front Lines to the Classroom: Remembering Fred Shuttlesworth and Derrick Bell

Shuttlesworth Statue, Birmingham, AL. Courtesy Kinu Panda.

This past week saw the passing of Fred Shuttlesworth and Derrick Bell, two important actors in the Civil Rights Movement.

Shuttlesworth, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a leader in the Birmingham Campaign to desegregate public facilities and end discrimination in hiring in Birmingham, Alabama, endured repeated attempts on his life, church and family by members of the white resistance. In addition to his activities in Birmingham, Shuttlesworth could be found on the front lines of the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1964 efforts to desegregate the beaches in St. Augustine, Florida, and the 1965 marches in Selma, Alabama.

Open Vault contains a recording of Fred Shuttleworth’s speech at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Click on the 5th of 15 hours of the Educational Radio Network’s live reporting from the march – Shuttlesworth starts at 19:00. You can hear a great example of Shuttlesworth’s fiery and inspirational preaching style in this recording:

Now, in many places, the court’s calendars of the land are clogged. The police forces are being marshaled and lines taught to keep people from trying to be free. The judges have their hands full and the politicians are worrying night and day. Now, if the politicians want to be free, and if they want peace, if the judges want to unclog their calendar, if the police want to be unfettered so that they can go ahead and hunt crooks because people who want to be free are not necessarily crooks.

At the same time that outspoken leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King were marching, sitting-in and conducting public campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience, the NAACP was waging its own war against the legal barriers to desegregation through the court system.

In 1959, 29 year old Derrick Bell joined the NAACP Legal Defense team along side Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley. Throughout the 1960s, Bell would shepherd 300 school and public facilities desegregation suits through the courts, including James Meredith’s successful bid to desegregate the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss,” in 1962.

Derrick Bell, 1990

Almost 30 years later, Derrick Bell, then serving as law professor at Harvard, found himself at the center of a new kind of civil rights struggle. When a Black female lecturer was denied an open tenure-track position, Bell used his highly visible position as the first African American professor at the law school to draw attention to what he and many of his students felt were ongoing discriminatory hiring practices. Bell took leave without pay to protest the lack of women of color on the law school faculty.

Peer into this later moment of civil rights struggle in a Ten O’Clock News
feature story on Bell’s protest here on Open Vault.

Fred Shuttlesworth and Derrick Bell fought against discrimination and racism throughout their careers – Shuttlesworth from the pulpit and on the streets, and Bell in the courtroom and the classroom. Taken together, their two paths paint a rich picture of the struggles of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, and continuing up through today.

Do you remember the Birmingham Campaign?
Would you have the courage of James Meredith to desegregate Ole Miss?
How have evolving hiring practices affected the diversity of your workplace?
Would you be willing to sacrifice your life or your livelihood for the sake of others?

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