“A Fire You Can’t Put Out” – Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Updated: Mar 21
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on March 14, 2021
I loved them with all my heart. I received my winning lottery ticket number at birth. After all, I am the 5th child of Levi and Lillian Watkins – my personal heroes.
I have written about my family and its history in America on several occasions. My parents, grandparents and ancestors were incredible people. Never have so few people done so much for America with so few resources. The Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family has been bridge builders in American culture for over 150 years.
This family has shaped who I am as a man. In the words of famed civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, this family instilled “a fire [in me] you can’t put out”.
My purpose in life was defined at birth. I was groomed to carry on our family’s legacy – educational excellence, breaking down color barriers, speaking up for the “least of these”, and fighting for civil rights and human dignity in a sea of suffocating racial oppression and endless brutality in the Deep South.
Like those who preceded me on the frontline, I have always understood and been willing to pay the price that must be paid to improve the plight of a race of people who were brought to America 400 years ago to serve as slaves. That price was often death or imprisonment. Often, it was both.
As I look back over my life at 72-years-old, I am very proud of the profound contributions I have made to racial progress in America. In the face of incredible odds, I was able to (a) desegregate the University of Alabama’s law school; (b) use my litigation skills to desegregate 67 of the state’s public K-12 school systems, all of the state’s community colleges and technical schools, all 32 Alabama public senior colleges, numerous local, state, and federal government agencies in Alabama, and the workforces of countless private companies; (c) curtail police brutality; (d) set a record number of landmark cases in American jurisprudence; (e) own as an African-American, the first international cargo airlines; (f) take 4 private companies public on the NASDAQ; (g) secure the first and only bank charter ever awarded to an African American by the Alabama Banking Department; (h) operate and grow a successful waste-to-energy company in 47 international markets; and (i) own an international oil and gas company. Again, my stride towards excellence is a “fire you can’t put out”.
As the engines of African-American progress in the U.S. have grinded to a halt, the forces that have always opposed our progress have found creative ways to neutralize my ability to favorably impact American society. As has been the case for the past 400 years, these forces are trying to redefine the public image of independent black entrepreneurs like me. They have sought to portray us as “sinister” or “crooks”. None of the leaders of the neutralization effort has ever lifted a finger to promote racial equality in America. At best, they can only utter the empty words that “I have a good black friend”, often referring to a Clarence Thomas-like “Negro”.
Despite the dangers that lie ahead and the challenges that impede our progress as Americans, I remain optimistic about this nation’s future. Like millions of forward-thinking Americans, I am focused on the future. My fire is still raging. I still have personal and professional goals to achieve, and I firmly believe I can reach them. For me, prison is a detour, not a deterrent. I know the obstacles that must be overcome to reach my goals, and how to overcome these obstacles.
As with all adversity, I have learned that the key to succeeding in life is one’s faith in God and one’s ability to apply his/her knowledge, skills and abilities under the most challenging circumstances. The forces that oppose our growth can always strip us of material possessions and they can easily restrain our physical freedom. What they cannot do is suppress our knowledge, imprison our minds, break our spirits, and extinguish a fire that can’t be put out.
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