“That Fred Shuttlesworth did not become a martyr was not for lack of trying… There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.” This quote from Andrew Manis, author of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s biography A Fire You Can’t Put Out, sums up the truth about the man Dr. Martin Luther, King Jr. once called “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.” When attackers planted a bomb near his parsonage at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Christmas Day 1956 that tore apart the bedroom walls, floor, and even the mattress he was sleeping on but left him unhurt, Reverend Shuttlesworth took it as a sign that God would protect him as he kept on doing the work he was called to do. When he finally passed away on October 5 at age 89, he had been granted a long, full life to keep following that calling.
I like many others pause at the end of every year to remember and honor the heroes and loved ones I have lost, and this year Fred Shuttlesworth is one of my personal lanterns and a true American hero. His fearless leadership in Birmingham in the middle of some of the worst violence of the Civil Rights Movement—violence that appalled and helped wake up the rest of the nation—inspired me and countless others.
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a native of rural Mount Meigs, Alabama, came to Birmingham in 1953 to serve as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church. Almost immediately he became a leader in the local civil rights scene, first joining the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and then co-founding the new Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956 after a circuit judge banned NAACP activity in Alabama. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Montgomery’s segregated bus system that November, Fred Shuttlesworth immediately encouraged the ACMHR to begin fighting bus segregation in Birmingham. This was the campaign that led to the bombing of his church and parsonage. But far from being deterred, Fred was just getting started.
Marian Wright Edelman visits Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in the hospital.
The next year he helped co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) along with Dr. King. The two of them were notorious for having very different leadership styles with Fred described as more fiery, confrontational, and brash. In Fred’s own words a few years ago, “He (Martin) was sometimes slow in doing things. Too slow for me. He’d meditate on things a lot and agonize over them. I think if things need doing, be about them.” Fred Shuttlesworth’s bold and unafraid attitude when “things needed doing” was ideally suited for standing up to the harsh, violent climate of segregationist police commissioner Bull Connor’s Birmingham. He was indispensable in getting Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to focus on Birmingham as a powerful symbol for the rest of the nation. His instincts proved right. Today many of the first images that come to mind when people think about violence during the Civil Rights Movement—like crowds of nonviolent child protesters being attacked by police officers with dogs and fire hoses, or the four little girls killed during Sunday School at the 16th Street Baptist Church—are scenes from Birmingham. At the time, these searing heartbreaking pictures on front pages across the country helped turn the tide of public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Movement’s fight for justice.
Fred Shuttlesworth became a familiar figure at every stage of the Birmingham campaign, from lunch counter sit-ins to supporting and welcoming Freedom Riders to the nonviolent marches of the Children’s Campaign, and he was a target at every turn. He survived a second bombing, a number of police beatings that led to several hospitalizations, and dozens of arrests. When he had to be rushed to the hospital with chest injuries after fire hoses were turned on him during a nonviolent protest, The New York Times reported that Bull Connor said “I’m sorry I missed it. I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.” But Bull Connor’s racism and meanness was no match for Fred Shuttlesworth’s courage.
Fred Shuttlesworth moved to Cincinnati after Birmingham as the founding pastor of Greater New Light Baptist Church and was an unwavering warrior against racism, homelessness, poverty, and injustice before retiring to Birmingham in 2008. He was always generous in sharing his time with the young people and others who gathered at CDF-Haley Farm and enabled the next generations to relive his experiences firsthand. He was one of the great heroes who changed the odds for all children in America.
In 2007, a memorable Shuttlesworth appearance at a march in Selma, Alabama on the anniversary of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” Voting Rights March was made more special by his wheelchair being pushed by Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. At his death President Obama said “Reverend Shuttlesworth dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans. He was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. And today we stand on his shoulders, and the shoulders of all those who marched and sat and lifted their voices to help perfect our union… America owes Reverend Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude.” Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s faithful and fearless dedication to getting about the things that need doing in order to fight injustice set a powerful example for the rest of us to follow. And I was pleased as punch when I visited him in his nursing home to ride on the Fred Shuttlesworth Parkway after flying into the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Who says transforming change is not possible?
I hope a lot of new Fred Shuttlesworths will emerge soon to lead the next civil and human rights movement in communities all across America to end the shame of child hunger, homelessness, poverty, and illiteracy.