Remembering the fearless Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

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By Eugene Puryear
October 16, 2011

A legacy with much to admire and emulate

Civil rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., left, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, center, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy held a news conference in Birmingham, Ala., on May 8, 1963.

Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, stalwart civil rights movement leader, died Oct. 5 at the age of 89. Shuttlesworth rose to prominence by continuing civil rights activity in Alabama following the 1956 banning of the NAACP by state officials.

Present at virtually every major event in Alabama civil rights history of the 1950s and 1960s, Shuttlesworth gained broad respect for his willingness to brave the gravest of consequences with no regard to his own life. Most noted for his role in Birmingham’s 1963 “Children’s Crusade,” Shuttlesworth was an important supporter of the Freedom Rides. He also accompanied Autherine Lucy as she enrolled as the first Black student at the University of Alabama in 1956.

A two-time victim of bombings and numerous beatings, Shuttlesworth once survived a bomb attack in which six sticks of dynamite were used. When he attempted to enroll his daughters at an all-white school, he was beaten multiple times with chains and brass knuckles, and by his own account was “almost at death’s door.” On the militant, aggressive edge of the non-violent section of the movement, Rev. Shuttlesworth sought to inspire bold action, which also gave him a reputation as a sometime abrasive ally.

Humble beginnings

Rev. Shuttlesworth was born in the Alabama backwoods in 1922 to a family that made a living sharecropping and bootlegging. In 1940, he was convicted of running a still and received two years probation. Throughout the 1940s, he moved around the state working as a truck driver and cement worker. Towards the end of the decade, he settled into full-time preaching, got married and built his own home out of scrap. By 1953, Shuttlesworth was pastor at Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist church, and an active member of the state’s NAACP.

In 1956, however, the NAACP was effectively banned in Alabama and wound down operations. Already frustrated by organizational obstacles in the NAACP, Shuttlesworth seized the opportunity to fill the void in Alabama with a new civil rights organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Later in the decade, he was central to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Stressing the need for mass action, Shuttlesworth fearlessly engaged in actions of small groups and sometimes of just himself, looking to set inspirational sparks.

Shuttlesworth was often at odds with the urban Black elites who had made their own accommodation with Jim Crow. He and other civil rights leaders devoted to mass action to smash segregation had to look to the broad mass of working-class and poor Blacks and grade-school youth, buoyed by college crusaders. The domestic workers, the sharecroppers and the high school students who filled jails—these were the backbone of the Alabama struggle in the early 1960s.

In the eye of the storm

Shuttlesworth’s centrality to the Birmingham movement made him a crucial ally of the Freedom Riders in 1961. The Freedom Rides electrified the nation as groups of students braved threats and violence to test court rulings on desegregation in interstate travel. On Mothers Day, May 14, the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham. For weeks prior, Shuttlesworth had warned of a Klan ambush, the threat of which was an open secret in the city.

Birmingham was known at that time as a seat of Jim Crow terrorism, with one of the South’s most vicious law enforcement officials, Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor had begun his career breaking strikes and hounding communists in 1930s Birmingham, and was a zealous opponent of civil rights activity. Connor and the Klan were determined to stop the Freedom Rides in Birmingham, so Connor promised the KKK 15 minutes of complete freedom to attack the Freedom Riders in the bus terminal.

Once the melee began, Shuttlesworth’s home became an impromptu mobilization center that people at the bus station called for help; it was where reinforcements were dispatched and where protesters who escaped the violence sought shelter. Organizers from Shuttlesworth’s ACMHR rescued Freedom Riders trapped in and near the bus terminal. Shuttlesworth went on helping coordinate logistics with student leaders in Nashville as well as getting arrested himself in a struggle that kept the Freedom Rides going.

Shuttlesworth is most associated with his role in the events around the “Children’s Crusade” of 1963. With his developed network in the city, Shuttlesworth joined with Martin Luther King Jr to turn Birmingham into a watershed moment for the movement. In his words, “We were trying to launch a systematic, wholehearted battle against segregation, which would set the pace for the nation.”

However, the movement was slow to pick up momentum, with almost uniform opposition from the urban Black elites, optimistic that the triumph of white “liberals” in recent elections would usher in an era of slow and steady desegregation. Students from elementary to high school, not content to wait and skeptical of promises from politicians, became increasingly involved in the movement. They filled jails to their capacity and scandalized the world as pictures of dogs and fire hoses being unleashed on children filtered out through the media.

While leading one protest, Shuttlesworth was hit in the chest and taken away in an ambulance. Upon hearing that news, Bull Connor publicly remarked that he wished Shuttlesworth had been taken away in a hearse. It was Connor, however, who was carted off as the Birmingham movement broke down the wall of segregation and electrified the civil rights movement, injecting the issue into the center of the nation’s consciousness.

Rev. Shuttlesworth remained involved in civil rights issues, including a failed attempt at reinvigorating the SCLC, basing himself out of Cincinnati. Unfortunately, in 2004 he lent his name to an effort to block a gay rights ordinance. He died in Birmingham, where he had relocated following a stroke in 2008, leaving behind a legacy with much to admire and emulate.

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