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The Most Courageous Civil Rights Leader in the South: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

We, of the African-American community in the United States, have encountered another unfortunate great loss, where our work is still not finished.

Due to the great loss of REV. FRED SHUTTLESWORTH, I feel compelled to share information about his undying work.

African-American Baptist Pastor and the central leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was one of the pioneering figures of the Civil Rights era.  He founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956, and joined with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to protest segregation in Birmingham in 1963.

Born in Montgomery County, Alabama on March 18, 1922, Rev. Shuttlesworth was raised near Birmingham in rural Oxmoor, Jefferson County by his tough-minded mother, Alberta Robinson Shuttlesworth Webb.  Due to his mother’s strength he developed a combative demeanor that prepared him for civil  rights leadership in Alabama.  During World War II, he worked as a truck driver at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, and then, after experiencing a ministerial calling, he enrolled in the now-defunct Cedar Grove Bible College in Mobile, and Selma University.  He graduated from Selma University in 1951, and then attended Alabama State College, graduating from there in 1952.  Also in 1952, he became the Pastor of Selma’s First Baptist Church.  In early 1953, took over as Pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in north Birmingham.

Rev. Shuttlesworth became active in voter registration efforts of the NAACP  and in Civic League attempts to clean up saloons in Birmingham.  He also supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.  In response to an Alabama Circuit Court injunction against the NAACP, Rev. Shuttlesworth founded the ACMHR in June of 1956.  He and his organization spearheaded civil rights agitation in Birmingham beginning with calls to integrate the Birmingham Police Department.  In December 1956, right after the victory of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rev. Shuttlesworth attempted to desegregate the Birmingham Transit Company.  After he announced plans to lead Black rides in a protest on Christmas Day (1956), White segregationists bombed his home.  Rev. Shuttlesworth survived the explosion unharmed, which convinced him and his followers that God had miraculously saved him “to lead the fight” against segregation.

Rev. Shuttlesworth’s earliest civil rights efforts in Birmingham made possible a political comeback by the notorious, hateful arch-segregationist Eugene T. “Bull” Connor, who promised voters that he would personally stop civil rights activists like Rev. Shuttlesworth from achieving their goals.  In 1957, Connor was elected Commissioner of Public Safety, which was the beginning of a six-year battle between the two men, resulting in forces pulling the South apart in the era of “massive resistance.”

During this same year, Rev. Shuttlesworth helped ministers and Civil Rights Leaders, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which became one of the most important Civil Rights organizations in the South during the 1960s.   He also served as one of the original officers of the SCLC.  He made national news in September 1957, when he was severely beaten while attempting to enroll two of his daughters in the all-White Phillips High School.  However, this incident was overshadowed by the then volatile events surrounding the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, known to many of us as the ‘Little Rock Nine.’

Seeking to integrate Birmingham in all aspects, Rev. Shuttlesworth became one of the most profound and determined Civil Rights Leaders of the era.  His persistence consistently angered and agitated “Bull” Connor, who used both the police and fire departments to scare local African-Americans away from the ACMHR’s well-established weekly meetings.  Connor conspired with other white segregationists in two bombings of Bethel Baptist Church, neither of which resulted in any fatalities.

Rev. Shuttlesworth’s continued defiance of Connor and the danger of challenging segregation became legendary as he took his place with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy as the “Big Three” of the movement.  Rev. Shuttlesworth often boasted that he “tried to get killed in Birmingham,” causing detractors to question his sanity on various occasions.  He traveled the country often, and in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960, he witnessed the first student sit-in, a tactic he credited to Dr. King, and brought back to students in Birmingham’s Miles College.  In 1961 he protected Freedom Riders at his home after they were beaten by White mobs af the Birmingham Bus Terminal.

In early 1963, Rev. Shuttlesworth and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. collaborated, and both of their organizations launched historic demonstrations in Birmingham.  Building on Rev. Shuttlesworth’s seven (7) years of effort, and planned with the assistance of ACMHR members, the Birmingham demonstrations began in April and ended on May 10, 1963, with city businesses agreeing to begin desegregating downtown department stores.  As the events unfolded, national and international news outlets covered the incidents of marches that included more than 2,000 youth protestors, many of whom were arrested and who filled Birmingham jails.  These demonstrations resulted in President John F. Kennedy introducing into Congress the legislation that became the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  This was the law that was supposed to end segregation in public accommodations throughout the United States, and along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, formed the legislative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.  When meeting with Dr. King, Rev. Shuttlesworth and others, the day the Civil Rights bill was introduced, President Kennedy stated, “But for Birmingham, we would not be here today.”

After the early to mid-1960s, Rev. Shuttlesworth moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became the Pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church.  However, his civil rights activities continued both locally and nationally, and he kept in close contact with the Birmingham African-American community.  Working with Birmingham’s First Black Mayor, Richard Arrington, Rev. Shuttlesworth helped bring to fruition the establishment of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Museum, where a statue of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth greets thousands of visitors every year.

In 1989, Rev. Shuttlesworth established the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation, which has assisted hundreds of low-income Cincinnati families in purchasing their first homes.   In 1999, Andrew M. Manis, Author, published a biography of Rev. Shuttlesworth, titled, “A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.”

For a short period in 1004, he served as President of the SCLC.  Rev. Shuttlesworth retired as the Pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church in 2006, at the age of 84.   In 2007, he suffered a stroke, causing him to move back to Birmingham in February 2008 for needed rehabilitation.  During the summer of 2007, the city honored him with a four-day tribute and renamed its airport – the “Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.”

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, after turbulent fighting for Civil Rights and racial injustices, including surviving beatings and bombings in Alabama by notorious White segregationists/Ku Klux Klan, he passed away at Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama, yesterday, October 5, 2011.  He is survived by his wife, Sephire Bailey Shuttlesworth, four daughters, a son, a stepdaughter, and a host of other close relatives.

QUOTES MADE BY AND ABOUT REV. FRED SHUTTLESWORTH

“Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”  [Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, after being treat for wounds encountered by White segregationists and Ku Klux Klan in 1957.]

“We wanted confrontation, nonviolent confrontation, to see if it would work… Not just for Birmingham – for the nation.  We were trying to launch a systematic wholehearted battle against segregation, which would set the pace for the nation.”  [Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth]

“I went to jail 30 or 40 times, not for fighting or stealing or drugs…. I went to jail for a good thing, trying to make a difference.”  [Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth told grade school students in 1997]

“The best thing we can do is be a servant of God.  It does good to stand up and serve others.”  [Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth during his final sermon at Greater New Light Baptist Church – Cincinnati, Ohio in 2006]

“We’re telling ol’ Bull Connor right here tonight that we’re on the march and we’re not going to stop marching until we get our rights.”  [Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth speaking to his followers]

“I made the movement.  I made the challenge.  Birmingham was the citadel of segregation, and the people wanted to march.”  [Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth]

“When God made Bull Connor, one of the real negative forces in this country, He was sure to make Fred Shuttlesworth.”  [Rev. Joseph Lowery, Minister and Civil Rights Activist]

“Fred didn’t invite us to come to Birmingham.  He told us we had to come.”  [Andrew Young]

“Without Fred Shuttlesworth laying the groundwork, the demonstrations in Birmingham would not have been as successful …. Birmingham led to Selma, and those two became the basis of the Civil Rights struggle…. Mr. Shuttlesworth had no equal in terms of courage and putting his life in the line of fire to battle segregation.”  [Andrew M. Manis, Author – “A Fire You Can’t Put Out….”]

“He was the first Black man I knew who was totally unafraid of white folks.”  [Alabama’s First Black Federal Judge, U.W. Clemon]

“The most courageous Civil RIghts Fighter in the South.’ [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH THAT WE MUST CONTINUE OUR UNFINISHED WORK AND PASS THE TORCH TO OUR YOUTH.

 

NATALIE R. FITTEN

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