FAREWELL 'DEAR LEADER': Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean dictator who died on Dec. 17 at age 69, will be remembered for turning his impoverished country into a nuclear-weapons player. (Photo: Kcna/ZUMA Press/Newscom)
Since I am the daughter and my children are the grandsons of a North Korean refugee, the plight of North Korea is a frequent topic of discussion in our family. My sons are 9 years old and younger, but they have already formed strong opinions about the leaders of the nation that was once their grandfather’s homeland. Just a week ago, my 6-year-old prayed the following: “God please bless everyone, except Kim Jong-Il.”
When we asked him why he prayed in this particular way, he replied, “He’s a bad, bad man. I don’t love him. I hate him.”
It doesn’t matter how many times we try to tell them that God wants us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). My kids don’t understand what could possibly motivate a man to ignore the suffering of so many people that he is supposed to be leading and caring about.
When I heard the news on Monday evening about Kim Jong-Il’s passing, I found myself shedding tears not of sadness but of anger toward him, toward his father Kim Il-Sung, and towards all those in power in a nation that invests more in its nuclear and military armament than in feeding its starving population. And I realized that I am much closer to my kids’ sentiments than I might care to admit.
I think of my father, who was 13 years old when he left his home country on foot, traveling with his own father and his brother in order to avoid being conscripted into the escalating conflict between the Communist-leaning north and democratic-leaning south halves of Korea. Their trip took 15 days and included a 40-minute harrowing venture across chest-high, freezing water to cross the Taedong River in Pyongyang at night. (You can view an amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning photo here of Korean refugees trying to climb across the remains of the main bridge over the Taedong. This was taken on the same exact day that my father left North Korea: December 4, 1950.)
When he departed from home that frigid December night, 61 years ago, my dad said goodbye to his mother who’d stayed behind to try to convince her brothers to also head south, and assumed he’d be back home in a week or two. But he never saw his mother again. Theirs is a story all too common amongst Koreans in my father’s generation; countless numbers of Korean families were personally affected or were close to someone devastated by the effects of the Korean War, which left behind a tragic legacy of separated or permanently altered families. Officially, the Korean War is actually still ongoing; certainly in the minds and hearts of the Korean people, this conflict and its far-reaching personal consequences have remained far from forgotten.
My dad, who just turned 74 years old, is pessimistic about the prospect of any type of positive change in North Korea. He tells me, “My main worry is for the people who are innocent victims, all those people who just happened to be born in North Korea and who live there. No other country wishes to unify Korea or engage in any risky attempts to overthrow the regime. This all means I won’t be able to see any bright future in North Korea in my lifetime. It’s so, so sad!”
I will be honest: I cannot conjure even a shred of remorse or sadness about Kim Jong-Il’s passing. Although he personally had nothing to do with the circumstances leading to my dad’s family story, in my mind he represents the very worst of mankind, and how its evils can deliver countless decades of misery into the lives of ordinary human beings.
There is a part of me that is even glad for Kim’s passing, if only because it brings the tragic story of the Korean peninsula back into present-day focus. Regardless of what we may think of North Korea’s past and present leaders, regardless of whether we are of Korean descent or not, we all need to be aware that the North Korean story is not just one of a seemingly endless reign of despotic rulers, but also of countless numbers of families experiencing decades upon decades of grief and sadness.
I am grateful for organizations such as Crossing Borders and LiNK, which are both involved in the dangerous and critical work of assisting and advocating for North Koreans refugees, and The Saemsori Project, which is helping to reunite long-separated Korean families. (You can see Saemsori’s interview with my father on YouTube here.) These organizations may not be able to do anything to ensure humane leadership in the post-Kim Jong-Il era. But the work they are doing has eternal value as they strive for North Korean refugees and immigrants to experience both freedom and family anew.
Meanwhile, I will strive to teach my sons that the best way to “love the enemy” in North Korea is not to embrace hatred, but to support organizations such as these, and to continue to pray and press toward a future in which the North Koreans there and abroad experience no more dying, no more crying, no more hurting. It may not happen in my father’s lifetime, or in my lifetime, or even in my kids’ lifetime. But one day, hopefully sooner than later, we know that the old order will pass away, in North Korea and anyplace else where tyranny currently reigns over liberty.
And as we pray for justice to roll down, may we never forget the millions upon millions who have suffered, lost, and perished along the way.
Helen is currently editing her father’s memoir about his life as a North Korean refugee living in the U.S.
LOST SOUL: Amy Winehouse in London on July 23, 2009, exactly two years before her death. (Photo by Shaun Curry/Newscom.)
This week, Amy Winehouse’s official cause of death was finally announced, three months after the singer was discovered dead in her London home on July 23. After initial autopsy results came back inconclusive, the coroner determined that Winehouse died from consuming an extreme amount of alcohol. According to test results, the 27-year-old singer’s blood alcohol level was five times the drunk-driving limit. Her doctor said the troubled star had resumed drinking in the days prior to her death, after a short-lived period of sobriety.
Besides being a talented artist, Winehouse was emblematic of the numerous celebrities today whose public battles with substance abuse are regularly in the headlines. By the end of her life, Winehouse’s struggles had stretched to the point of becoming fodder for jokes and riddles (“Q: What was Amy Winehouse’s biggest hit? A: Her last one!”). Sadly, our society has grown so accustom to addiction that we now laugh it off. But for those in its grips, it’s no joke.
We asked LaTonya Mason Summers, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based mental health therapist, to comment on the realities of drug and alcohol addiction and what we can do to help those affected by it.
UrbanFaith: After Amy Winehouse’s death, the Huffington Post featured a commentary by Rabbi Shais Taub which asked the question, “Was the World Powerless to Stop Amy Winehouse?” In other words, are there addictions so strong and pervasive that they’re beyond human understanding and control? How would you answer that?
LaTonya Mason Summers: The word choice is interesting here, and I agree: the “world” was powerless to stop Amy Winehouse. But it was the “world” that fueled Winehouse’s addictions. Not “world” in the sense of the “earth,” but “world” as defined by Winehouse’s frame of reference — the background, culture, and lifestyle out of which she lived. Addictions are strong, pervasive and hard to understand and control, but it’s even more difficult when one tries to stop addiction by their own strength and understanding. It is reported that Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. Drug and alcohol abuse is a byproduct of something far deeper. Oftentimes, it’s a symptom of low self-esteem, unresolved trauma and abuse, rejection and abandonment, and mostly fear. We do a great disservice to addicted persons when we focus on their addictions and ignore the underlying problems.
We see so many celebrity drug and alcohol addicts today that our culture has almost grown cold and callous to it. For instance, before her death there was a website devoted solely to the question of “When will Amy Winehouse die?” We see celebrities such as Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Whitney Houston, and Charlie Sheen, and we make jokes about them. How does this affect our culture’s understanding of addiction?
When we have a culture entertained by reality TV shows, court and crime TV, and sensationalized Web broadcasting — not to mention today’s popular music — we can’t help but have a desensitized society. We are no longer afraid of or empathetic toward anyone or anything because we’ve been there and done that through TV and the media. So, why wouldn’t we have a “When will Amy Winehouse Die?” website?
Unfortunately, we live in a society that “dumbs down” addictions but tacitly gives a “thumbs up” to its portrayals. Remember when there used to be cautionary documentaries on drugs and alcohol, and on people who struggled with them? Now, we have reality shows that glorify dysfunctional behavior. No wonder we are ignorant. Understanding addictions is no longer newsworthy.
How do you counsel a person with a serious drug addiction? Where do you begin, and what kinds of things should family and friends understand as they’re trying to help that person?
I used to set up and run treatment programs for adolescent and adult substance abusers. I absolutely loved that line of work, but it was emotionally tough. After 11 years of doing it, I stepped away to work solely with mentally ill people. The public sees addicted persons as weak people who lack self-control and deserve every consequence they face. But can you imagine the level of shame, guilt, frustration, and hopelessness that those substance abusers felt by the time they got to me? Imagine having failed everyone, including yourself, family, friends, employers, and the legal system — not to mention God. I always started treatment by instilling hope and restoring the addicted person’s sense of worth. It was much easier to establish rapport, trust, and motivation that way.
God forbid I say this, but oftentimes the families were more sick than the addicts. In fact, family members would wind up on my couch before the addict would. Family work is important in substance-abuse treatment, because the family members can make recovery hard. They help too much. Their helping sometimes hurts the addict. When my patients had toxic families, I’d send my patient to a treatment program in another city or state so they could get better.
Over the summer, former NBA star Jalen Rose was sentenced to 20 days in jail for drunk driving. Some wondered if the treatment was overly harsh because he was a black celebrity, since others have gotten off easier. Do you think jail time is an effective way to steer people clear of destructive behavior involving alcohol and drugs?
In my experience working in the court system as an advocate for my clients, the courts made it worse. The punishment given rarely fit the crime. The probation officers were inconsistent. The judges sent mixed messages by punishing minor crimes with maximum sentences and vice versa. Jail time is punitive, and punishment does not work when the drug or alcohol use is secondary to something else. Addicts don’t mind punishment because they typically feel useless and worthless anyway. That kind of punishment affirms what they believe about themselves. However, I am not saying they should not suffer consequences for drunk driving, drug use, etc. I am saying that offering them rehab while they’re incarcerated might yield greater results.
What kinds of miracles have you seen in your work with people battling addictions?
LaTonya Mason Summers
Goodness, the stories I can tell. I’ve had a hand in imparting into the lives of addicted persons who are now pastors, business owners, and even addictions counselors. I had a 15-year-old girl whose parents brought her to me as a last resort. She had refused other counselors, and I assumed she would do the same with me. After I asked her parents to leave, the girl opened up to me like a book. (It wasn’t because of anything special that I said to her, but other professionals simply had failed to remove the parents.) The girl was a cocaine user and held me by her confidentiality rights, so I could not tell her parents. We made a pact that if she stopped using I would keep her secret. I cannot tell you the anxiety I had for weeks thinking something would go wrong. I collaborated with her physician to drug test her weekly to ensure the girl’s abstinence. After three months, her parents called thanking me for my help. The girl had returned to a healthy weight, her appetite had been restored, and her mood had improved. Today (four years later) she is a successful college student studying psychology.
Among the celebrity success stories that stand out are Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual victory over substance abuse. It only came after several stints in jail and a long, public battle. What kinds of things contribute to a successful road to recovery, and when do you know that someone is legitimately recovered?
My biggest weapon is instilling hope. I do this by challenging the addicted person’s mentality and perspective. I am a cognitive behaviorist, which means I help change the way people think. I do not know what works, as I have often thrown up my hands on clients who later recovered. Then I have lost clients whom I thought had arrived. All I really know is, pray hard in each session. I ask for God’s help. I ask Him to give me the words to say, and I hold on to Isaiah 50:1-7, believing I am called as a therapist.
I honestly don’t know when a person is legitimately recovered, as I believe it’s a lifelong process. Like those of us who are not addicted, we have our own lifelong battles — we try to stop lying, cheating, stealing, yelling, cursing, overeating — everyone has a Goliath they must face. And can any of us say we’ll ever arrive in this world? From my perspective, messing up is just as much part of the recovery process as getting it right is. And, if you get it right all the time, how do you know you’re recovered?
Is it possible to effectively treat addiction without addressing the spiritual aspects of the problem?
Absolutely not! I’ve had to learn how to minister without saying “God” and “Jesus,” so that I can reach everyone. However, I know how to make others want what I have. I was mentored by a man who told me, “I may not be able to make a horse drink the water, but I should be able to make him thirsty.” And that’s the approach I take in therapy. I see myself as sowing seeds, believing someone will come behind me and water them, and eventually increase will come.
Addiction is spiritual. I believe an addict’s zealousness can be indicative of the great calling on his life. He just needs to move that zealousness away from destructive behavior to purposeful, life-giving behavior.
CRIMINAL OR MISUNDERSTOOD?: Even in death, Gadhafi has his defenders.
In the aftermath of his death, some are wondering whether the late Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi will be remembered as a martyr instead of a mad tyrant.
Fellow dictator Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for instance, expressed anger over the death of his friend. “They assassinated him. It is another outrage,” he told reporters. “We shall remember Gadhafi our whole lives as a great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr.”
Some have pointed to the free health care and subsidized housing in Libya as evidence of Gadhafi’s compassion, as well as his financial support of other African nations. “Mr. Gaddafi was a dictator, but he was a benevolent dictator, whether you like or dislike him,” said French journalist and blogger Moe Seager. “And he gave millions to black African health, educational and agricultural projects.”
But in addition to his support of impoverished nations, the Libyan leader was also known for funding a variety of notorious outfits. In fact, his government was implicated in the financing of many controversial militant groups, including several associated with terrorism.
Earlier this year, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan defended his friend Gadhafi and criticized President Obama and the United States for supporting the Libyan rebels. “It is a terrible thing for me to hear my brother called all these ugly and filthy names when I can’t recognize him as that.”
With a controversial friend like Farrakhan as an advocate, it probably isn’t a total shock to hear some African Americans sympathizing with Gadhafi’s plight and speculating about conspiracy theories in the wake of his death. In the comments section at the black news site NewsOne.com, for instance, one reader declares, “Any Black person who celebrates the ‘death’ of Muammar Gaddafi has to be a product of western media propaganda.” He goes on to argue that Gadhafi was a strong benefactor of other African nations, and concludes by implying that Gadhafi’s ouster and death were the result of a CIA plot.
It’s easy for most of us to take for granted that Gadhafi was an international criminal whose multitude of vicious sins had finally caught up to him. But it’s interesting to note that not all Americans subscribe to that view.
And so, the question lingers: Was Gadhafi a misunderstood revolutionary or a cruel tyrant? The smart money is on the latter, but your answer most likely depends on your personal view of the media, international relations, and America’s role in the world.
UNPREDICTABLE FIGURE: Moammar Gadhafi in 2009. He ruled Libya for 42 years.
In the modern pantheon of the world’s dictators, Moammar Gadhafi stood apart. Far apart.
Erratic and mercurial, he fancied himself a political philosopher, practiced an unorthodox and deadly diplomacy, and cut a sometimes cartoonish figure in flowing robes and dark sunglasses, surrounded by heavily armed female bodyguards.
He ruled Libya with an iron fist for 42 years, bestowing on himself an array of titles, including “king of culture,” “king of kings of Africa” and, simply, “leader of the revolution.” It was as an actor on the world stage, though, that he showed his gift for unpredictability. President Ronald Reagan called him “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian president, once said Gadhafi was “either 100 percent crazy or possessed of the devil.” Others thought he was both.
When Gadhafi took power in 1969, he embraced an adventurist foreign policy, championing his dream of a utopian, Islamic nation that would span northern Africa. He eschewed both communism and capitalism and called his political system jamahiriya, or “republic of the masses.
He soon evolved into an international troublemaker: His Libya funded guerrilla groups, built a nuclear weapons program and launched terrorist attacks on the West _ including the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Then, as the United States began hunting terrorists worldwide, he did a diplomatic U-turn, making oil deals with the West and providing back-channel help for American spy agencies battling international terrorists.
It was the “Arab spring” uprising against tyrants in the Middle East that ignited an internal rebellion against Gadhafi, turned his regime into a NATO target and led to the end of the reign. On Thursday, in his hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean Sea, it was over. He was 69.
Rise of a Revolutionary
The only son of an illiterate Bedouin herder, Gadhafi was born in a goatskin tent about 20 miles from Sirte and spent his early years living the life of desert nomads. His father scrimped and borrowed to send his son to a nearby Muslim school. It was there that Gadhafi listened daily to a Cairo radio station that carried speeches by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a pan-Arabist and leader of the independence movement in the Arab world.
“We must go into the army,” Gadhafi told his classmates. “That is the only way to make a revolution.”
He was 14 when he led his first demonstration in support of Nasser, and by the time he was 19 he had taken the first step toward formulating a plan to overthrow the corrupt, pro-Western regime of Libya’s King Idris by entering the Royal Military Academy at Benghazi.
Gadhafi surrounded himself with fellow conspirators and imposed the same moral standards on them that he demanded of himself: abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, no womanizing or gambling, prayers five times a day. In 1966, he studied armored warfare tactics in Britain, where he learned to speak English.
On Sept. 1, 1969, Gadhafi, a 27-year-old signal corps captain in the Libyan army, and his group of “free officers” overthrew Idris, who was out of the country, in a bloodless coup. Gadhafi himself went to the state radio station to broadcast the news to the Libyan people.
LEADER OF THE REVOLUTION: Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser (right) with the young Gadhafi in 1969.
“Give us your hands. Open up your hearts to us,” he said. “Forget past misfortunes and as one people prepare to face the enemies of Islam, the enemies of humanity. … We shall resurrect our heritage. We shall avenge our wounded dignity and restore the rights which have been wrested from us.”
He moved quickly in an effort to change Libya overnight. He ordered the closure of the United States’ huge Wheelus air base _ negotiations were carried out amicably between Washington and Tripoli _ and the evacuation of British military bases. He expelled 20,000 Italians and nationalized most of the oil industry. Nightclubs and casinos were shuttered, alcohol was banned, and unmarried women who became pregnant were flogged and sent off to reformatories.
Angered by the amount of time his bureaucrats spent reading newspapers and drinking coffee, he had most of the desks and chairs removed from government offices. The bureaucrats were not fazed; they took to reading their newspapers leaning against the walls and brewing their coffee on the concrete floors.
During his first full decade in power, Gadhafi was a popular leader. He invested some of the nation’s $50 billion in annual oil revenue in developing agriculture and building schools, hospitals and housing.
In the 1970s, Gadhafi developed his so-called Third Universal Theory. It was his blueprint for a socialistic welfare state in which there would be no laws, no money, no government, no private enterprise. The leader — Gadhafi never called himself president — published this philosophy in a slim volume called The Green Book.
He managed to attract a group of leftist scholars to Libya in 1979 to debate the wisdom of “The Green Book,” though most impartial observers found it most noteworthy for its naivete and lack of depth. One example from its text: “Woman is a female and man, being a male, does not … get pregnant … (and) is not liable to the feebleness which woman, being a female, suffers.”
Gadhafi detested communism as much as capitalism, distrusted the Soviet Union no less than the United States and had little use for the moderate Arab states. In 1984, displeased with his North African neighbors, he sent one of his planes to bomb the state radio station in Sudan and, it is widely believed, one of his ships to sow mines in Egypt’s Gulf of Suez.
Some critics dismissed Gadhafi as mad, and pointed to unsubstantiated reports of frequent mental breakdowns. Others believed he was simply obsessed with his self-proclaimed assumption of the mantle of Nasser’s pan-Arab movement, which had lost its credibility elsewhere years earlier.
Whatever the explanation for his behavior, he was a man who marched to his own inner voice, convinced that he was the only Arab in step with the times.
A Schizophrenic Ruler
It was during the late 1970s and ‘80s that Gadhafi’s reputation at home began to suffer serious damage. He began to crack down on dissent, banning strikes and stifling the media. He banned private enterprise and Western literature, and his agents assassinated government opponents at home and abroad.
Known by many names, including Colonel and Brother Leader, his attempts at economic and political reform also withered as the government became increasingly decentralized. Libya was largely run by local “revolutionary” committees that were inept and corrupt.
Despite the troubles at home, Gadhafi began to cause mischief further afield, giving money to guerrilla groups and reportedly attempting to stage coups against other African leaders. Libya was swiftly earning a reputation as a dangerous, rogue state.
He was linked to an attack on a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. soldiers that left two servicemen dead and prompted Reagan to bomb Libya in 1986. Two years later, Tripoli was implicated in the bombing of the Pan Am 747 over Scotland. Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, an alleged Libyan intelligence officer, was convicted in 2001.
Gadhafi agreed to pay nearly $3 billion in compensation to families of the airline bombing victims. Megrahi was released from prison in 2009 for medical reasons, drawing criticism in Britain that a deal with Gadhafi had been struck to protect European businesses and trade.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 startled Gadhafi. Worrying that his own regime could be in jeopardy, he denounced weapons of mass destruction and offered to open his nuclear program to international inspectors. The move helped ease economic sanctions against Libya and put Gadhafi in the spotlight as leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli in 2004.
“It was strange, given the history, to come here and do this and of course I am conscious of the pain that people have suffered as a result of terrorist actions in the past,” Blair said of his meeting with Gadhafi. “But the world is changing and we have got to do everything we possibly can to tackle the security threat that faces us.”
President George W. Bush announced the gradual restoring of diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya. Condoleezza Rice visited Libya in 2008, the first secretary of State to make that journey in more than half a century. A U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks suggested that, although Gadhafi avoids making eye contact, he was a voracious consumer of news and was eager for the chance to “share with you his views on global affairs.”
Still, Gadhafi, who had survived attempted coups and assassinations, retained his swagger. He pitched tents during his travels abroad and periodically railed against the imperialist West.
In a vintage 90-minute-plus address to the United Nations in 2009, he called the 15-member Security Council the “terror council” and quipped that anti-terrorism measures in the U.S. were like “being a prisoner in the Guantanamo camp, where there is no free movement.”
Meanwhile, diplomats traded gossip about the reclusive leader’s habits. Other U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks suggested that he was a hypochondriac who was afraid of flying over water, often fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, and loved flamenco dancing.
Beginning of the End
Things weren’t going well for Gadhafi in Libya, though. His political and economic reforms were seen as ruses by a population stifled by repression and limited opportunities.
In recent years, the country had watched schools, hospitals and other institutions built by the oil money fall into disrepair. His son Seif Islam “implicitly criticized” his father’s regime, according to one U.S. cables published by WikiLeaks.
Gadhafi himself blamed his government for corruption but it was largely seen as posturing.
The eastern part of the country around the city of Benghazi, a long-simmering anti-Gadhafi stronghold, grew more restive. Major tribes, the key to power in Libya, grew increasingly wary of him. Gadhafi had lost his touch with manipulating clan loyalties with money and power.
Meanwhile, the antics and lavish lifestyle of his family, which diplomatic cables described as providing “enough dirt for a Libyan soap opera,” became more of an embarrassment. His son Mutassim, Libya’s national security adviser, paid Mariah Carey $1 million to sing four songs at a private party in the Caribbean. There were reports that Mutassim was among those killed along with his father Thursday.
A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable titled “Thug Life” describes Gadhafi’s strained ties with Switzerland after his son Hannibal was arrested in Geneva on charges of abusing servants.
The final rebellion against Gadhafi was years in the making, and it burst forth in a wave of uprisings against autocrats and kings that swept North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year.
SOLIDARITY FROM AFAR: In March, Libyan expatriates in Dublin, Ireland, protested in support of the "Arab Spring" rebels back in their native country.
Gadhafi underestimated the rage against him as protests in eastern Libya flared across the country. Rebels pushed toward Tripoli from the east and west and battled his beleaguered army and band of mercenaries.
The leader’s vicious assaults on his own people _ his forces fired antiaircraft guns at civilians and shot worshipers near mosques _ stunned the world. Much of the military and many Libyan diplomats and officials abandoned him as tens of thousands of people died.
As the revolt spread over the ensuing months, Gadhafi became increasingly cornered. North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombardments of government military forces strengthened bands of poorly equipped and ill-trained rebels.
‘Until the End of Time’
Yet, the leader remained defiant. Addressing thousands of Libyans in Tripoli’s Green Square in July, he threatened to dispatch Libyan suicide bombers to Europe in relation for the NATO bombings. “I told you it is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Gadhafi said.
He disappeared from public view, releasing video speeches until finally, as rebels closed in, transmitting only audio messages from hiding.
“I say to Crusader cowards, I live in a place you cannot reach,” he said during one broadcast. “I live in the hearts of millions. … If you kill my body, you cannot kill my soul.”
All along, he was unmoved by calls for his ouster, arguing that his authority transcended any official title.
“Moammar is not a president to leave his post,” he said. “Moammar is leader of the revolution until the end of time.”
NOT IN VAIN: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (seated) in 2007 with then-U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama at a commemoration of the 1965 Selma March in Selma, Alabama. (Tami Chappell/Newscom Photo)
Two cultural pioneers died Wednesday: Apple founder Steve Jobs and civil rights champion Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Both men were hailed as bold, fearless innovators who held sway over a younger generation and who used existing “technologies” to change the world.
For Jobs it was computer hardware and software; for Shuttlesworth, it was the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, which he invited into Birmingham, Ala. where he helped build a national stage upon which the battle for racial justice played out. Shuttlesworth rightly discerned that once Americans saw Police Commissioner Bull Connor’s hateful overreaction to African Americans’ pursuit of equality, their eyes would be opened to the cruelty and injustice of Jim Crow racism.
Jobs’ more recent triumphs may dominate the news cycle today, but for many Americans Shuttleworth’s legacy might be even more revolutionary.
A Courageous Visionary
The civil rights pioneer was 89 when he died in Birmingham, Ala. He had pastored Bethel Baptist Church there but moved to Cincinnati with his family in the early 1960s, CNN reported. In Cincinnati, he remained active in civil rights and pastored the Greater New Light Baptist Church from 1966 to 2008. Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham in 2008 after suffering a stroke and was being cared for in a nursing home, according to NPR.
“Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in,” Georgia Rep. John Lewis told NPR. “He led an unbelievable children’s crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs [in Birmingham] that moved and shook the nation.”
Shuttlesworth “personally challenged just about every segregated institution in the city — from schools and parks to buses, even the waiting room at the train station,” Historian Horace Huntley of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute told NPR.
After an Alabama judge outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and then helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also asked U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to protect the Freedom Riders, NPR reported.
Shuttlesworth was repeatedly jailed, and his home and church were bombed, but he refused to be intimidated. In the documentary Eyes on the Prize, he said that after one bombing he told Klansman police officers to go back and tell their fellow racists, “If God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration,” NPR reported.
A Testament to Strength
President Barack Obama said yesterday that Shuttlesworth “dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans” and “was a testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
“America owes Reverend Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Sephira, and their family, friends and loved ones,” President Obama said.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Shuttlesworth a Presidential Citizens Medal for his leadership in the “non-violent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s,” according to CNN. In the video below, Rev. Shuttlesworth reflects on his commitment to nonviolent resistance in the face of racist violence.
Shuttlesworth’s Unique Contribution
UrbanFaith asked two scholars of religion and race for their thoughts on Shuttlesworth’s significance. Here’s what they had to say:
For over twenty years I have taught a course each semester to undergraduates on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Always in the process of learning we discover that the struggle for civil rights, racial justice, and human dignity in the United States was the result of tens of thousands of committed people. One of the brightest shining stars and greatest exemplars of courage in the struggle was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
In 1963 Rev. Shuttlesworth invited Dr. King to bring his national efforts at confronting the evils of racism to Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most racist cities in the United States. The images of police dogs and fire hoses assaulting brave protesters, many who were children and youth, are burned into our collective memory. The entire Birmingham protest was marked by an extraordinary expression of courage. And it was Fred Shuttlesworth that most embodied this fearlessness for others to emulate.
It is not an overstatement to say that the success of the protest in Birmingham in 1963 was built on the foundation of several years of courageous acts against racism in Birmingham by Rev. Shuttlesworth. The courageous actions of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth helped produce the achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and subsequent movements for social justice in the years that followed. He leaves a legacy of always speaking and living truth—something we need more of today.
What Shuttlesworth’s story shows is that the movement was precisely that – a movement. Too often, Americans search for individuals as icons; too often they set up one person as the epitome of a story. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, often credits Abraham Lincoln for ending slavery, winning the Civil War, and healing the United States. By lodging social change in one person, Americans fail to see their history for what it was. And Shuttlesworth knew that to change a nation and to change history, it took more than one man.
Shuttlesworth was one of many heroic Americans of the mid and late twentieth
century who transformed the nation. Martin Luther King Jr., was his friend, not
his leader. They were colleagues who joined with other women and men, children and adults, to obliterate segregation. And they did so through faith – in God, in Christ, and in themselves.
Faith led Shuttlesworth to bear violence on his body (as so many others did); it led him to strain on amid death, even of children. Shuttlesworth was a movement man. No individual was bigger than the goal. When we think back to Reverend Shuttlesworth, we can remember him how he would want to be remembered: fortunate to be part of a broad struggle for freedom and uplift.
—Edward Blum, Ph.D., historian on race and religion in the United States at San Diego State University and author of several books, including W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet.
Former Georgia Rep. Andrew Young told CNN that Shuttlesworth helped launch the national careers of other leaders but chose to serve his churches and work locally to advance the civil rights of all people. What are your thoughts on the passing of this lesser known, but incredibly courageous leader? How does he inspire you?