Cincinnati’s pervasive tensions around race, class, and gender inequality were omnipresent for those of us who lived there in 2001. In particular, the successive shootings of unarmed African American men by police officers was something of a shock–seriously, how many were there in a row since 2000? Too many, so when Tim Thomas fell in April, the city erupted in protest and unrest. Hundreds, later thousands, of community members came together to organize nonviolent protests, and early on, we gathered in churches. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth lived in Cincinnati then, and it was his legacy (among many others) which inspired many of us who never thought we’d have occasion to march for civil rights to get involved. It was life-changing, humbling and permanently affected my perspective on public affairs and our society. Divisions still run too deep, and as painful, uncomfortable, and sometimes confusing it is, I believe it is up to us to grapple with that idealistic vision of Dr. King: to be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin. What does that really mean? That is an ongoing distillation.
Interviewed at the time about unrest in the city where he had lived since the 1960s, Rev. Shuttlesworth said of Cincinnati that “I thought we were beyond all this” in reference to (as I recall, anyway) the destruction, fires, and more violent components of those few days in April. It was sickening and sobering to realize that we weren’t.
Learning of Shuttlesworth’s death on Wednesday (along with Steve Jobs and Derrick Bell) brought to mind some old Irish superstition about deaths occurring in threes. What a tremendous, momentous loss for us all with these. But of the three, it was the loss of Shuttlesworth which gave me an emotional pause, thanks to those intense days ten years ago.