Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth

 

The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was one of the giants of the American Civil Rights Movement. He is generally regarded, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy as one of the movement’s “big three.”

He was born and raised in Birmingham, graduating from Selma University (1951) and Alabama State College (1952). Between 1953 and 1961 he served as pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church and organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in 1956. He was also one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and helped the Congress on Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) organize its “freedom rides” campaign.

During the civil rights struggles in Birmingham, Rev. Shuttlesworth’s house was a frequent target of bombing attacks and he was hospitalized after a fire hose slammed him up against a building during a civil rights demonstration.

One of the founding members of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Fred Shuttlesworth brought a militant voice to the struggle for black equality. In 1963 he drew Martin Luther King and SCLC to Birmingham for a historic confrontation with the forces of segregation. The scale of protest and police brutality of the Birmingham Campaign created a new level of visibility for the civil rights movement and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Shuttlesworth became involved in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1955. When Circuit Judge Walter B. Jones banned the NAACP from activity in the state in 1956, at the urging of Alabama Attorney General John Patterson, Shuttlesworth presided over a 4 June planning meeting for a new organization that became the ACMHR. Shuttlesworth led a mass meeting at Sardis Church the next evening, and was declared president by acclamation, a post he held until 1969.

In November 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional, Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR made plans to challenge segregation on Birmingham’s buses. The night before their campaign was to begin, a bomb exploded under Shuttlesworth’s parsonage at Bethel Baptist. The house was destroyed, but Shuttlesworth escaped unharmed. The following day, several hundred protesters sat in the sections reserved for whites on Birmingham buses. Twenty-one of the participants were arrested and convicted, and the ACMHR filed suit in federal court to strike down the local law mandating segregation.

Shuttlesworth joined King and C. K. Steele in issuing a call for a conference of southern black leaders in January 1957, “in an effort to coordinate and spur the campaign for integrated transportation in the South” (Papers 4:94). Held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the meeting laid the foundation for the group that would become SCLC. At a later meeting in August of that year, Shuttlesworth became SCLC’s first secretary.

As SCLC struggled through its early years, Shuttlesworth urged the organization to aggressively confront segregation. “I feel that the leadership in Alabama among Negroes is, at this time, much less dynamic and imaginative than it ought to be,” he wrote to King in April 1959. “Even in our Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I believe we must move now, or else [be] hard put in the not too distant future, to [justify] our existence” (Papers 5:189–190).

December 25, 1956, Ku Klux Klan members in Alabama bombed the home of civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Rev. Shuttlesworth was home at the time of the bombing with his family and two members of Bethel Baptist Church, where he served as pastor. The 16-stick dynamite blast destroyed the home and caused damage to Rev. Shuttlesworth’s church next door but no one inside the home suffered serious injury. White supremacists would attempt to murder Rev. Shuttlesworth four more times in the next seven years. In an attack in 1957, a white mob brutally beat Rev. Shuttlesworth with chains and bats and stabbed his wife after the couple attempted to enroll their daughters in an all-white high school.

Rev. Shuttlesworth became a popular target of white supremacists in the early 1950s after assuming leadership of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. As founder and president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, Rev. Shuttlesworth organized and participated in numerous protests and boycotts challenging Jim Crow customs and policies in Birmingham and across the South. The day before the Christmas bombing, Rev. Shuttlesworth had called upon local African Americans to desegregate the city buses starting on December 26. Undeterred by the Klan’s assassination attempt, Rev. Shuttlesworth proceeded as planned with the December 26 protest rides.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was involved in nearly every pivotal civil rights event of the 1960s, including the 1961 Freedom Rides and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in May 1963. His tireless activism in the face of violent opposition led Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to describe him as “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.”

In 1963 SCLC joined forces with the ACMHR to protest segregation in Birmingham. SCLC leaders met secretly in January of that year to draw up initial plans for the Birmingham Campaign, known as “Project C”—C for confrontation. Shuttlesworth issued the “Birmingham Manifesto,” which explained the black community’s decision to act. “We act today in full concert with our Hebraic-Christian tradition, the laws of morality and the Constitution of our nation,” Shuttlesworth proclaimed. “We appeal to the citizenry of Birmingham, Negro and white, to join us in this witness for decency, morality, self-respect, and human dignity” (Shuttlesworth, 3 April 1963).  On 6 April Shuttlesworth led the campaign’s first march on city hall.

As the campaign continued, tensions between King and Shuttlesworth increased. As a result of injuries from a march, Shuttlesworth was in the hospital during negotiations that produced a one-day halt to demonstrations. In addition to his opposition to the halt, Shuttlesworth resented being left out of the decision. King, however, was able to convince him to publicly support the decision. The Birmingham Campaign ended two days later, with an agreement between the city’s business community and local black leaders that included a commitment to the desegregation of public accommodations, a committee to ensure nondiscriminatory hiring practices in Birmingham, and cooperation in releasing jailed protesters.

Shuttleworth’s confrontational style provided a counterbalance to King’s more measured approach and served to inspire people to action. In his memoir of the Birmingham Campaign, King praised “the fiery words and determined zeal of Fred Shuttlesworth, who had proved to his people that he would not ask anyone to go where he was not willing to lead” (King, 61)

Since 1988, in addition to his duties with the Greater New Light Baptist Church, Rev. Shuttlesworth has served as director of the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation which has assisted over 460 low-income families to purchase their own homes.

Reverend Shuttlesworth has also been active in the struggle against racist police brutality and murder in Cincinnati, Ohio. He opened his church in Cincinnati to serve as the mobilization headquarters for the pro-affirmative action and integration march and rally in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He is the subject of a 1999 biography by Andrew M. Manis, A Fire you Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (University of Alabama Press).

Dr King Jr. to describe him as “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.”

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