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Shuttesworth and statue

BIOGRAPHY OF REV. FRED L. SHUTTLESWORTH

Howard K. Smith, Commentator for the May, 1961, nationally televised documentary, Who Speaks for Birmingham, called Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth “The man most feared by the Southern racist,” and further said of him:

Fred L. Shurtlesworth“No history written on the Civil Rights Movement would be complete unless it included the name of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Rev. Shuttlesworth has given more of himself for the “Cause of Freedom” than any man living today.”

Fred Shuttlesworth (born Freddie Lee Robinson on March 18, 1922) was a civil rights activist who led the fight against segregation and other forms of racism as a minister in Birmingham, Alabama. He continued to work against racism and for alleviation of the problems of the homeless in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he took up a pastorate in 1961. He returned to Birmingham after his retirement in 2007.

The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama is named after him.

Early life

Born in Mount Meigs, Alabama, Shuttlesworth became pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953 and was Membership Chairman of the Alabama state chapter of the NAACP in 1956, when the State of Alabama formally outlawed it from operating within the state. In May, 1956 Shuttlesworth and Ed Gardner established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to take up the work formerly done by the NAACP.

The ACMHR raised almost all of its funds from local sources at mass meetings. It used both litigation and direct action to pursue its goals. When the authorities ignored the ACMHR's demand that the City hire black police officers, the organization sued. Similarly, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in December, 1956 that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama was unconstitutional, Shuttlesworth announced that the ACMHR would challenge segregation laws in Birmingham on December 26, 1956.

Bethel Baptist Church
On left: Bethel Baptist Church. On right: The bombed Shuttlesworth home.
On December 25, 1956, unknown persons tried to kill Shuttlesworth by placing sixteen sticks of dynamite under his bedroom window. Shuttlesworth somehow escaped unhurt even though his house was heavily damaged. A police officer, who also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, told Shuttlesworth as he came out of his home, "If I were you I'd get out of town as quick as I could." Shuttlesworth told him to tell the Klan that he was not leaving and "I wasn't saved to run."

Fred Shuttlesworth led a group that integrated Birmingham's buses the next day, then sued after police arrested twenty-one passengers. His congregation built a new parsonage for him and posted sentries outside his house.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In 1957 Shuttlesworth, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy from Montgomery, Rev. Joseph Lowery from Mobile, Alabama, Rev. T.J. Jemison from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Rev. C.K. Steele from Tallahassee, Florida, Rev. A.L. Davis and Rev. Simmie Harvey from New Orleans, Louisiana and Bayard Rustin founded the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, later renamed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC adopted a motto to underscore its commitment to nonviolence: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."

Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy
Civil rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., left, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, center, and
Rev. Ralph Abernathy held a news conference in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 8, 1963.
Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.

Shuttlesworth embraced that philosophy, even though his own personality was combative, headstrong and sometimes blunt-spoken to the point that he frequently antagonized his colleagues in the movement as well as his opponents. He was not shy in asking King to take a more active role in leading the fight against segregation and warning that history would not look kindly on those who gave "flowery speeches" but did not act on them. He alienated some members of his congregation by devoting as much time as he did to the civil rights movement, at the expense of weddings, funerals and other ordinary church functions.

As a result, in 1961 Shuttlesworth moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to take up the pastorage of the Revelation Baptist Church. He remained intensely involved in the Birmingham struggle after moving to Cincinnati and frequently returned to help lead actions.

Shuttlesworth was apparently personally fearless, even though he was aware of the risks he ran. Other committed activists were scared off or mystified by his willingness to accept the risk of death. Shuttlesworth himself vowed to "kill segregation or be killed by it".

1957 attempt on his life

That nearly came true in 1957. When Shuttlesworth and his wife Ruby attempted to enroll their children in a previously all-white public school in Birmingham, a mob of Klansmen attacked them, with the police nowhere to be seen. His assailants beat him with chains and brass knuckles in the street while someone stabbed his wife in the hip. Shuttlesworth struggled to remain conscious but managed to stumble back to the car, dove into the back seat and the car drove off to safety.

When the doctor attending him expressed surprise that he had not suffered a concussion, Shuttlesworth replied, "Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head." His wife, for her part, expressed regret that modesty would not allow her to show other church members the scar she had gained.

In 1958 Shuttlesworth survived another attempt on his life. A church member standing guard saw a bomb and quickly moved it to the street before it went off.

Freedom Rides and Project C

Shuttlesworth participated in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in 1960 and took part in the organization of the Freedom Rides in 1961.
He invited King to come to Birmingham in 1963 to lead the campaign to desegregate it through mass demonstrations–what Shuttlesworth called "Project C", the "C" standing for "confrontation". While Shuttlesworth was willing to negotiate with political and business leaders for peaceful abandonment of segregation, he believed, with good reason, that they would not take any steps that they were not forced to take. He suspected their promises could not be trusted on until they acted on them.

One of the 1963 demonstrations he led resulted in Shuttlesworth's being convicted of parading without a permit from the City Commission. On appeals the case reached the US Supreme Court. In its 1969 decision of Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, the Supreme Court reversed Shuttlesworth's conviction. They determined circumstances indicated that the parade permit was denied not to control traffic, as the state contended, but to censor ideas.

In 1963 Shuttlesworth was set on provoking a crisis that would force the authorities and business leaders to recalculate the cost of segregation. He was helped immeasurably by Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety and most powerful public official in Birmingham, who used Klan groups to heighten violence against blacks in the city. Even as the business class was beginning to see the end of segregation, Connor was determined to maintain it. While Connor's direct police tactics intimidated black citizens of Birmingham, they also created a split between Connor and the business leaders. They resented both the damage Connor was doing to Birmingham's image around the world and his high-handed attitude toward them.

Similarly, while Connor may have benefited politically in the short run from Shuttlesworth's determined provocations, that also fit Shuttleworth's long-term plans. The televised images of Connor's directing handlers of police dogs to attack unarmed demonstrators and firefighters' using hoses to knock down children had a profound effect on American citizens' view of the civil rights struggle.

Shuttlesworth's activities were not limited to Birmingham. In 1964 he traveled to St. Augustine, Florida (which he often cited as the place where the civil rights struggle met with the most violent resistance), taking part in marches and widely publicized beach wade-ins that led directly to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus he was a key figure in the Birmingham campaign that led to the initiation of the law, and the St. Augustine campaign that finally brought it into being.

In 1965 he was also active in Selma, Alabama, and the march from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus playing an important role in the efforts that led to the passage of the two great legislative accomplishments of the civil rights movement. In later years he took part in commemorative activities in Selma at the time of the anniversary of the famous march. And he returned to St. Augustine in 2004 to take part in a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the civil rights movement there.

Greater New Light Baptist Church

Greater New Light ChurchShuttlesworth organized the Greater New Light Baptist Church in 1966 and founded the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation in 1988 to assist families who might otherwise be unable to buy their own homes.

Named Interim President of the SCLC in January 2004, he resigned later that year in November, complaining that "deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organization."

Retirement

In January 2006, Shuttlesworth announced his retirement from the ministry. Prompted by the removal of a non-cancerous brain tumor in August of the previous year, he gave his final sermon in front of 300 people at the Greater New Light Baptist Church on the 19th March 2006—the weekend of his 84th birthday.

In November of that same year, Shuttlesworth married the former Sephira Bailey. He continued to travel the country speaking on civil and human rights issues until he suffered a stroke in Sept. 2007. He and his wife returned to Birmingham in 2008 where he continues to receive medical treatment.

On July 16, 2008, the Birmingham, Alabama Airport Authority approved changing the name of the Birmingham International Airport (U.S.) in honor of Shuttlesworth. On October 27, 2008, the airport was offically changed to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

 

PREVIOUS PASTORATES:

  • Everdale Baptist Church, (1948-50); Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Potters Station (1948-50); & First Baptist Church, (1950-52), Selma, AL; Bethel Baptist Church, (1953-61), Birmingham, AL; & Revelation Baptist Church, (1961-1966), Cincinnati, OH.

CIVIC DUTIES:

  •  1956, Organizer and President, Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (A.C.M.H.R.), President Emeritus, 1969
  • Board Member and President of S.C.E.F. until it ceased functioning; Organizer/Co-Chairman of Southern Organizing Committee (S.O.C.) and still serves on its Board.
  • One of nine organizers and 1st Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957.
  • Served many years as member, National Advisory Board of Congress on Racial Equality.
  • National speaker and world-renowned leader of Civil Rights Organizations involved in the non-violent Movement for Freedom.

EDUCATION:

  • B.S. Degree, Alabama State, Montgomery, AL (1952)
  • A.B. Degree, Selma University, Selma, AL (1949)
  • Seminary Training, Cedar Grove Academy, Pritchard, AL (1943)


HONORARY DEGREES:

  • L.L.D., Birmingham Baptist College; D.D., Cincinnati Baptist College; L.H.D., Selma University; Doctor of Humane Letters, Xavier University, Hebrew Union College, Mt. St. Joseph College, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, Lewis University, Romeoville, IL, and Canisius University, Buffalo, NY; Doctor of Social Justice Degree, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, KY.

CIVIC HONORS:

  • In June, 1988, the City of Birmingham, AL., by unanimous vote, renamed Huntsville Rd. to “F.L. Shuttlesworth Drive.”
  • In 1988, The Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation was established by Rev. Shuttlesworth to give Grants of $500-$2000 to poverty-level families to help with down payments toward the purchase of a home. To date, more than 600 low-income families have become homeowners.
  • November 14, 1992, the City of Birmingham dedicated an 8 ½ ft. tall bronze statue of Rev. Shuttlesworth at the opening of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
  • He was honored as “Birmingham’s Civil Rights Leader”, June 1992. In November, 2002, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute established the “Fred Shuttlesworth Award, an annual award presented to an individual for outstanding leadership in Civil Rights.
  • Rev. Shuttlesworth is featured in the Spike Lee movie "Four Little Girls".
  • In September, 1998, he received the highest award given, for his work in Civil Rights, from the A. Phillip Randolph Institute.
  • November, 1998, the City of Cincinnati renamed N. & S. Cresent Avenues to Fred Shuttlesworth Circle, in his honor. That same month, the Birmingham Historical Society published A Walk to Freedom, a book about Rev. Shuttlesworth and the A.C.M.H.R., 1956-64.
  • In the summer of 1999, two books were released on his life: Step by Step,written by L.D. Ervin and A Fire You Can’t Put Out, written by Dr. Andrew Mannis.
  • In January, 2000, Rev. Shuttlesworth received the highest award given to a private citizen, the Presidential Citizen’s Award, from President Bill Clinton at the White House. The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce also named him one of the “Greatest Living Cincinnatians.”
  • In June, 2004, Rev. Shutttlesworth received the second highest award given to a private citizen, the Jefferson Award, in Washington, D.C.
  • He has also been bestowed with hundreds of other Awards, Proclamations, and Honors.

References

Manis, Andrew M. (1999) A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817309683

White, Marjorie Longenecker (1998) A Walk to Freedom: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Birmingham: Birmingham Historical Society. ISBN 0943994241

Branch, Taylor (1988) Parting The Waters; America In The King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0671460978

Manis, Andrew M. (Summer-Fall 2000) "Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth: unsung hero of the civil rights movement." Baptist History and Heritage. - accessed January 17, 2007

Curnutte, Mark (January 20, 1997) "In the Name of Civil Rights: The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth carries on a 40-year fight as the movement's 'battlefield general'." Cincinnati Enquirer - accessed January 20, 2007.

"The Champion" (November 26, 1965) Time Magazine.

Walton, Val (February 19, 2008) "Rev. Shuttlesworth to return to Birmingham for post-stroke therapy." Birmingham News

Garrison, Greg (June 29, 2008) "Legacy, history of civil rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth." Birmingham News

L.D. Ervin Turner Publishing Co. (1999) Step by Step.

Nunnelley,William (2003) Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Actionist. Seacoast Publishing Co.

Davidson, Joe (1998) "Braveheart: Fred Shuttlesworth," Emerge Magazine.