Fred Shuttlesworth was a pillar of Civil Rights


Fred Shuttlesworth
Date: 
Sat, 1922-03-18

*Fred Shuttlesworth was born on this date in1922. He was an African American civil rights activist and minister.

Born Freddie Lee Robinson 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 1956 Shuttlesworth and Ed Gardner established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to take up the work formerly done by the NAACP.

The ACMHR 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. The day before, 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 and Ku Klux Klan member 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." He 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.

In 1957 Shuttlesworth, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. T.J. Jemison, Rev. C.K. Steele, Rev. A.L.Davis, Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker 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." When Shuttlesworth and his wife attempted to enroll their children in a previously all-white public school in Birmingham in 1957, a mob of Klansmen attacked them, with the police nowhere to be seen. His assailants, including a man involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, also known as the Birmingham Church Bombing, named Bobby Cherry, beat him with chains and brass knuckles in the street while someone stabbed his wife. Shuttlesworth lost consciousness but was dragged to safety and driven away. 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 Shuttlesworth embraced that philosophy, and 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 Lead the Revelation Baptist Church.

He remained intensely involved in the Birmingham struggle after moving to Cincinnati, and frequently returned. Shuttlesworth participated in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in 1960 and took part in the organization and completion of the Freedom Rides in 1961. He worked with the Congress of Racial Equality to organize the Rides and became engaged with ensuring the success of the rides, especially during their stint in Alabama. Shuttlesworth mobilized some of his fellow clergy to assist the rides. After the Riders were badly beaten and nearly killed in Birmingham and Anniston during the Rides, he sent deacons to pick up the Riders from a hospital in Anniston after being brutalized earlier in the day and threatened to be thrown out by the hospital superintendent. He took in the Freedom Riders at the Bethel Baptist Church, allowing them to recuperate after the violence that had occurred earlier in the day. The students involved in the Rides appreciated Shuttlesworth's commitment to the principals of the Freedom Rides ending the segregationist laws of the Jim Crow South. Shuttlesworth's fervent passion for equality made him a role model to many of the Riders.

Shuttlesworth invited SCLC and Dr. 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. In 1963, Shuttlesworth was 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. In 1964 he traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, taking part in marches and widely publicized beach wade-ins that led directly to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. 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 and he returned to St. Augustine in 2004 to take part in a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the civil rights movement there.

Shuttlesworth 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. In 1998 Shuttlesworth became an early signer and supporter of the Birmingham Pledge, a grassroots community commitment to combating racism and prejudice. It has since then been used for programs in all fifty states and in more than twenty countries. In 2001, President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Citizens Medal. Named President of the SCLC in August 2004, he resigned later in the year, complaining that, "deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organization".

In 2005, 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. He and his second wife, Sephira, moved to downtown Birmingham where he was receiving medical treatment. In 2008, the Birmingham, Alabama Airport Authority approved changing the name of the Birmingham International Airport to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. On October 5, 2011, Shuttlesworth died at the age of 89 in his hometown of Birmingham, AL. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has announced that it intends to include Shuttlesworth's burial site on the Civil Rights History Trail.

Reference:
USA TODAY / USATODAY.com
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