|John Lewis, an unidentified nun, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunch, Rabbi Abraham Herschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stepped off in the lead of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.|
Although he was revered among veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and a legend in the South, you may never have heard of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, especially if you were taught, as so many have been, that the movement began and ended with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When he died yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama at the age of 89 after a long illness, the news of his death was swept off of many news outlets by wall-to-wall coverage of the death of Apple tycoon Steve Jobs. This development would not have surprised the Rev. Fred one bit.
Combative, assertive, blunt, aggressive, and most of all fearless, Shuttlesworth seemed to be at the center of almost every major battle of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet those very characteristics made him a controversial figure, often as hard for his allies to work with as he was for his enemies to defeat. But no matter how much he irked them, his associates in the bitter struggles of those days never doubted his commitment, courage, and laser like focus on his goals.
Born to an unwed mother on March 18, 1922 in Mount Meigs, Alabama as Freddie Lee Robinson he took the name of the man his mother later married. The family grew to include a total of nine children and eked out a living sharecropping and a little moonshining on the side. In fact young Shuttlesworth was arrested and sentenced to two years probation for moonshining in 1940.
Despite hardships he was able to complete high school, a rare achievement for a sharecropper’s son. During World War II he moved to Mobile where he was a truck driver and mechanic at Brookley Air Force Base. At war’s end Shuttlesworth felt the Call. He enrolled in the tiny all Black Cedar Grove Bible College in Mobile to study for the Baptist memory. He transferred to a larger Black Baptist college, Selma University, and finally graduated from Alabama State College in 1952. He supported himself with various menial jobs and weekend pulpit supply preaching while in school. He developed a blunt, fervent style of preaching which may have been short on flowery eloquence, but made up in passion.
After graduating from school Shuttlesworth was called to the First Baptist Church in Selma. That didn’t last long. He soon clashed with the Elders of the church. In 1953 he accepted the pastorate of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was a fated match of preacher, pulpit, and city.
Having long chaffed under the harsh conditions of the Jim Crow South, Shuttlesworth was finally in a positions to fight back. He joined the Alabama chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then the nation’s oldest and most important Civil Rights organization. He rose to be Secretary of the organization and embraced the group’s strategy of challenging segregation laws in the courts and voter registration drives. The activities of the NAACP so outraged the White establishment that the Alabama legislature outlawed the organization and forced the closing of its office. Shuttlesworth responded by simply creating a new organization, Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to take up the same work in May of 1956. The first action of the new organization was to bring suit against the city of Birmingham to integrate its police force.
1956 was also the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which Shuttlesworth actively supported. In December, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public transportation was un-Constitutional, Shuttlesworth immediately announced a boycott would be launched in Birmingham to integrate the busses.
Early on Christmas 1956 a bomb made of 10 sticks of dynamite was set off underneath the bedroom of the Bethel parsonage as Shuttlesworth and his wife slept. The powerful bomb blew in the outer wall and lifted the mattress with the sleeping couple into the air. But both survived with only minor injuries. The minister interpreted his survival to the approval of God for his mission and vowed to press forward. It would not be the last time he would be targeted by bombers and assassins.
The confrontation between Shuttlesworth and the city brought an ousted former local official and ardent segregationist, Eugene T. "Bull" Connor, who promised voters that he would personally stop Shuttlesworth and his movement allies from achieving their goals, back to power. Conner was elected Police Commissioner in 1957 setting up a long time duel between the antagonists.
To further the struggle to integrate public transportation, Shuttlesworth joined with Montgomery leaders Dr. King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Joseph Lowery from Mobile, Alabama, the Rev. T.J. Jemison from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Rev. C.K. Steele from Tallahassee, Florida, the Rev. A.L. Davis from New Orleans, Louisiana, Fellowship of Reconciliation leader Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker to mobilize Black clergy to the cause. They named their new organization Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. At their second meeting the group decided to broaden its mission and re-named itself the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King, Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth were elected officers.
In September 1957 Shuttlesworth and his wife tried to enroll their two daughters in segregated Phillips High School in Birmingham. As police stood by and refused to intervene, Shuttlesworth was severely beaten by iron bars and his wife stabbed. The horrific incident first brought the minister to the attention of the national media, but the dramatic events around the attempted integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Undeterred, Shuttlesworth pushed on with a program to combat segregation “on all fronts” in Birmingham. He led frequent marches and demonstrations. By his own count he was arrested “fifty or sixty times” over the next few years. Bull Connor used his police to not only break up protests, but to route members from attending the weekly meetings of the ACMHR where strategies were planned on demonstrations organized. Twice the Bethel Church was bombed, although no fatalities ensued. No other Civil Rights leader in the South led as sustained a campaign over such an extended period of time.
Shuttlesworth also found time to travel for the SCLC. On a trip to Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960 he witnessed some of the first of the Lunch Counter Sit-ins. He encouraged a somewhat reluctant Dr. King to adopt the new tactic. Shuttlesworth was often at odds with King behind closed doors. He considered the movement’s most visible leader to be too cautious, too apt to compromise, and not aggressive enough in risking mass arrestments. He privately warned King that history would not look kindly on those who gave “flowery speeches” but did not act on them. King for his part worried that Shuttlesworth was a lightning rod for White hatred and had an aggressive style that frightened and alienated both the Black Middle Class and White liberals. Despite their differences, the men respected each other and Shuttlesworth continuously begged King to commit to coming to Birmingham for a major joint campaign of the ACMHR and SCLC.
Shuttlesworth was initially skeptical of the Freedom Rider movement in the summer of 1961 but ultimately agreed to work with his old associate Baynard Rustin and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to help organize and provide local support for the riders. After the Riders were badly beaten and nearly killed in Birmingham and Anniston he arranged to pick up the injured from a hospital in Annison and bring them to the Bethel Church to recuperate from their wounds. After they were sufficiently healed, Shuttlesworth went with the Riders to the Birmingham bust station to attempt to get on another bus to continue their planned trip to New Orleans. Unable to find drivers willing to take the trip, he then arranged for the riders to fly to Louisiana to join the re-enforcements completing the journey by bus from other locations.
All of this intense activity was hard on the Bethel Church. Not only did it make the church a target for violence, but members began to feel neglected as Shuttlesworth did not have time for many pastoral duties including conducting wedding, funerals, and baptism and ministering to the sick and elderly. In 1961 he left Birmingham to take up the ministry of the Revelation Baptist Church in Cincinnati. But he did not abandon his ties to either the city or the broader Civil Rights movement in the South. He continued to visit often and kept a hand in local leadership in Birmingham through the ACMHR and throughout the South with the SCLC. Meanwhile he also launched various projects in his new home, a Northern city with many cultural ties to the South.
In 1963 Shuttlesworth finally got Dr. King and the SCLC to commit to a major Civil Rights offensive in Birmingham, which he dubbed Project C—C for confrontation. The plan was to force local businesses into across the board concessions by making them “recalculate the cost of doing business” in the face of mass, sustained street demonstration. The Birmingham campaign brought to a head the old enmity between Shuttlesworth and Bull Connor who unleashed his police with riot batons, dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators and enlisted local Klu Klux Klansmen to abet the violence. The horrific images were broadcast to the world by television, building public sympathy, as Shuttlesworth knew it would. He took his place on the front lines and was injured by a blast from a fire hose at point blank range into his chest. When Bull Connor was asked about it, he told the press “I’m sorry I missed it. I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”
King was jailed and penned his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Shuttlesworth was convicted of parading without a permit. The conviction was later over turned by the Supreme Court which ruled that he did not need a permit because the requirement was not based on traffic concerns but the intent to restrict his free speech, a land mark ruling in and of itself.
The furor over the brutality in Birmingham led President John F. Kennedy to submit a major Civil Rights bill to Congress.
In 1964 Shuttlesworth traveled to the St. Augustine, Florida to help coordinate a similar campaign. He later described it as the most brutal of his career. The violence in Florida provided more grizzly images that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
He joined Dr. King for the 1965 Selma Campaign for voter’s rights—a cause he had been pushing for since his earliest days with the NAACP. He marched in the front ranks with King, Abernathy, and John Lewis when marchers under Federal protection finally crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the March from Selma to Montgomery. The march, along with the murders of two Whites, Unitarian Universalist Minister James Reeb and U.U. laywoman Viola Liuzzo, was the catalyst President Lyndon Johnson needed to push the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress.
In 1966 Shuttlesworth left the Revelation Baptist Church to found his own new congregation in Cincinnati, the Greater New Light Baptist Church. This allowed him greater freedom than ever to continue his Civil rights work both in the South in southern Ohio.
In 1979 he worked with Birmingham’s first Black Mayor to found and build the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation to provide assistance to low income Blacks to purchase their own homes.
In 2004 he assumed the Presidency of the SCLC. But the old organization was a shell of its former self and had fallen into quarrelling factions with no clear agenda for moving forward. Within a year Shuttlesworth announced his resignation charging “deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organization.” It was vintage Shuttlesworth blunt, tough talk.
Late in life, honors heaped up. President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal in 2001. After a dehabilitating stroke in 2006 he retired from the pulpit at New Light Baptist and returned to Birmingham with his wife where he took up residence in a nursing home. At a reunion of Civil Rights veterans and a ceremony commemorating the Selma campaign in 2007, Shuttlesworth was pushed in his wheel chair across the Pettus Bridge by then Senator Barack Obama. In 2008 the city government which had once battled him furiously renamed the local air field the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
Shuttlesworth lived long enough to see Obama inaugurated President. But his health was failing.
If you didn’t know Fred Shuttlesworth before, I hope take a moment to honor this extraordinary man now.
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