The inventor, the activist, and the activist-scholar

Steve JobsThree brilliant men who shaped the world died yesterday.

Steve Jobs is the name everyone knows. It’s hard to overstate the impact on our lives of this man most of us have never met. I’ve barely spent a waking moment away from an Apple product since I learned of his death yesterday. Listening to my Ipod, working on my computer – even when I was in the kitchen my housemate was at the table on her Mac laptop. Jobs’ work enabled new forms of communication like, oh, this blog.

Fred ShuttlesworthReverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth may be less well known to white America. He was a life long civil rights activist, leading many actions that played a vital role in ending Jim Crow. And he didn’t stop there, continuing his work into the 2000s. Good has a great overview of Shuttlesworth’s activist career.

I was most personally impacted by the passing of Derrick Bell. Bell was a legal scholar who played a major role in the formation of critical race theory, a field of legal thought that has had an extraordinary impact on understands of race and racism. Bell was a storyteller – his work is a far cry from a lot of dry legal scholarship. He even wrote fantastical allegories about race – his story “The Space Traders” is well known outside the world of legal scholarship.

Derrick BellBell’s challenging writing on Brown v. Board of Education (he famously suggested the ruling was actually in the interest of white folks) opened my mind to new, more critical ways of investigating race and the law. Simply put, I would not think the way I do today without Bell’s work, and I know the same is true of many activists and writers committed to racial justice.

Bell was a trailblazer, the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School. Yet he famously resigned from positions at the Justice Department, Harvard, and Oregon Law School in protest of institutional actions. Bell was always willing to give up positions of power in service of his ideals.

I never knew any of these men, and I know most readers didn’t either. But it’s undeniable they’ve had a lasting impact on many of us. Their work lives on, and we are changed by it.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    As a native of Cincinnati and a civil rights scholar, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Rev. Shuttlesworth speak a number of times and was always impressed by his courage and his kindness. However, Rev. Shuttlesworth broke my heart in 2004 when he sided with conservatives in the city to stop the repeal of Article XII, a law which made it completely legal to discriminate against gay men and women. Arguing that repealing the law would grant gays and lesbians “special rights,” he supported a deeply homophobic group who fought to keep the law in place.

    I don’t write this to take away from Rev. Shuttlesworth’s work. Rather, I do it to complicate the image of the man as we look back over his life.

    • Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Elizabeth. I wasn’t aware of that. It’s a sad flaw in an extraordinary legacy.

  2. Posted October 7, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    An amazingly important person died from cancer mere days ago. No, not Steve Jobs. Last week the world lost the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai changed the world. I am sorry for Steve Jobs’ passing, but I am sick to death of the hyperbolic claims about how he “changed the world and the way we live.” On every news outlet I’ve looked at today his death has dominated the entire news cycle (hello, we’re waging multiple wars – is that not news?). Yeah, he changed the world. He invented stuff that helped in some ways, but does that excuse the 30million computer parts and 100 million cell phones that were discarded last year? Does that dismiss the death, pollution and misery linked to Coltan mining? Should he be lauded for “making us want stuff we didn’t even know we wanted” and contributing to worldwide pollution, greed and waste so that privileged people could communicate with greater efficiency and buy overpriced gadgets? The American media needs some perspective. A captain of capitalism died and it is earth-shattering. An activist for women, the poor, environmental concerns and the rights of Africans dies and we hear jack from the mainstream media. I think the Horatio Alger story of Steve Jobs has become a cultural myth more than an accurate reflection of his life. Yes, it was sad he died, but it is also sad that tens of thousands of Africans live in poverty and develop cancer to mine the Coltan for the products his company made. It is a tragedy that the workers in Apple’s Chinese plants do not make enough in one month to afford to buy one of the iPods that they make. He was an innovator and that’s great, but I don’t think that the jury has decided on whether his contributions had a greater contribution or greater negative impact on the world. We are seeing this filtered through a very privileged, very western worldview. He benefited from an exploitative system and did NOT do many things which would have lessened that exploitation. He was the head of the corporation and a person with enormous influence. I mourn for the lost opportunities he had to bring change more than praise the changes he wrought.

    • Posted October 7, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS.

      I think Feministing is ignoring their own privilege with this post.

      Steve Jobs invented some great stuff, but he was an asshole for the reasons listed above, and for making his Chinese sweatshop workers sign no-suicide pledges and for a whole host of other capitalistic reasons.

      So thank you, thank you. And THANK YOU for giving Wangari Maathai that acknowledgement she more than deserves.

    • Posted October 8, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, agreed!

    • Posted October 9, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

      I also agree that the amount of media attention that Steve Jobs is receiving in comparison to other individuals that have made important social contributions is reflective of the materialism that plagues this society. The fact that Wangari Maathai and her accomplishments are hardly recognized in American media just goes to show how much control they have over what we deem important. Scary times.

  3. Posted October 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I too am annoyed at the loud accolades for Steve Jobs as a departed True American Hero. Did he really change the world, or just give it a firm push in the problematic direction it was already heading?

    It breaks my heart that his passing has overshadowed that of Fred Shuttlesworth and Wangari Maathai, two truly amazing human beings. (Though flawed, as pointed out above.) Most of my family and friends don’t even know who they are.

    And personal admission: I didn’t know who Derrick Bell was until now. Thank you Jos for enlightening me.

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