By Alan Bean
“He was the soul and heart of the Birmingham movement. Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in. He led an unbelievable children’s crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs that moved and shook the nation.” John Lewis
Fred Shuttlesworth is dead at 89. He never thought he would survive the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Far less protective of his personal safety than men like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, Shuttlesworth attributed his survival to the grace of God. He couldn’t think of any other explanation.
Frankly, neither can I.
It was Shuttlesworth that convinced MLK to come to Birmingham in 1956, the year his home was fire-bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, and it was Shuttleworth’s courage that sustained the movement. As the quote above suggests, the Birmingham preacher drafted children into the movement when most of the able-bodied adults were already in prison. In 1961, when a mob of white segregationists surrounded his Birmingham church, it was Shuttlesworth who calmed the crowd.
Shuttlesworth had been sparring with Police Chief Bull Conner for seven years before the Birmingham campaign reached its peak. It was during these years of relative anonymity that Shuttlesworth was the most vulnerable. Not nearly as erudite as the silver-tongued Martin Luther King, Shuttlesworth was an old-time “hooping” preacher. While King struggled to win the support of progressive and moderate whites, Shuttlesworth inspired the foot soldiers.
When he came to preach at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in October of 1978, I had never heard of Fred Shuttlesworth. The civil rights narrative trumpeted in the mainstream media had ony a few hero slots available, and Rev. Fred never made the cut. Shuttlesworth had been invited to speak at Southern by Andrew Manis, then an M.Div student. A decade later, Manis would write the acclaimed biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
Old School black preachers are often unnerved by predominantly white audiences. There is a interactive cadence to black preaching that washes back and forth between the preacher and the congregation. Preaching to an unresponsive audience, it’s hard to get your rhythm. So it was for Shuttlesworth at Southern. His voice was almost inaudible at first, and his delivery seemed forced.
But something he said struck a chord with my wife, Nancy. “Amen,” she shouted, as loudly as she dared.
“I’ll take that amen!” Shuttlesworth roared back, and suddenly, he was a man transformed. When the sermon ended, we were all on our feet whooping and hollering.
You had to look hard to find a mention of Shuttlesworth’s death in America’s flagship newspapers. The death of Steve Jobs and Sarah Palins’ political career grabbed the headlines. But no one did more to kill Jim Crow than the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
The civil rights leader’s legacy reveals stark contrasts from his contemporaries
October 6, 2011
In our mind’s eye they are still there. Their chiseled, resolute faces take not a moment to stare into the lens of a camera, nor its violent burst of light, lest they take their eyes off the prize. They are dressed impeccably in wool suits with solid, skinny ties and wearing fedoras, the gentlemen’s crown — or pretty in pearls, the heroine’s charm. They are marching arm-in-arm, mouths agape singing songs about rivers and freedom and grace and justice. They are in Birmingham. Boston. Memphis. Montgomery. There was work to be done, so We Shall Overcome wasn’t just a song, so much as it was a promise that Jesus made in the sermon on the mount.
The vast majority of civil rights leaders and icons whose leadership helped usher in a new age of freedom and liberty for African Americans — enabling the possibility of even being able to consider the phrases “post-racial” or “post-black” — are old men and women now, or dead. Immortalized in glossy black and white photos, and in statues, their aesthetic, intentional or not, rightly left an indelible mark on the American psyche. As the news of the death of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth at the age of 89 emerged from the halls of Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, Ala., so began consideration of his legacy.
And Shuttlesworth’s though complex, is worth the investigation.
Dr. Andrew Manis, associate professor of History at Macon State University and author of the critically-acclaimed A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, met Shuttle as a young seminary student. His uncle, Vasso P. Chronis, owned the construction company that built The Greater New Light Baptist Church’s new sanctuary in 1978.
“My jaw had dropped open that my uncle could get on the phone and within an hour this significant person from civil rights movement was sitting in the same living room with me,” recalled Dr. Manis, who, has spent perhaps more time interviewing him than anyone has interviewed any other civil rights leader. “And that’s just the time the tape recording was running.”
Dr. Manis later arranged for Shuttlesworth to speak at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His classmates listened to Shuttlesworth’s thoughts on his life, the seminary and civil rights.
“He was an embodiment of the sort of country, black, folk tradition in terms of the pulpit,” Dr. Manis said. “He was [a practitioner of] what’s known as the “celebration” the ‘whoop’ or the ‘hoop’ is what it’s most often called. It’s when at the end of a sermon a preacher begins to be more musical, rhythmic, and moves into a kind of chant. He was a person who preached as he was led of the Spirit, he wasn’t given to writing out his sermons, he could be very dynamic and very emotional. I think the picture of him that’s on the cover of my book is the perfect way to depict his style.”
Though Shuttlesworth was not as well-known as Dr. King, he was the beloved spiritual leader of younger members of the movement who identified more with his no-nonsense approach to tactical action, and less with Dr. King’s affinity for rhetorical flourishes. Dr. Manis says this is one of the ways Shuttlesworth’s legacy is to be differentiated.
“He was truly a man of the people. The people loved him and were always impressed that he was more eager to embody in actions what he was talking about, than worry about how eloquent he was talking about it in sermons. There were times where he would good-naturedly chastise King for being more given to flowery phrases than actions, than actually moving.
“He had been trying to convince King to come to Birmingham and join forces with Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. In fact, he was writing somewhat pointed letters as early as 1959, telling King to come and to bring the national press with you, and build on what my organization is doing. [His message was], If we can defeat segregation in Birmingham, we can defeat it nationwide.”
The events of 1963 helped change America’s — and President Kennedy’s — mind. Nearly everything that happened to turn the tide in favor of aggressive reform when it came to civil rights in America, had grown out of the deep roots of Shuttlesworth’s tireless work in Birmingham.
Those roots were not set easily.
Shuttlesworth believed, with all conviction, that God had saved him from harm that Christmas night in 1956 when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his home. In his mind, says Dr. Manis: “God had put a cloak of invisibility around him to help lead this fight.
“This was a modern day Daniel in the Lion’s Den. To them it said, not only would God protect him, but this was a man who was courageous enough to put his life on the line and it galvanized him, the church, the organization and African Americans all over the city of Birmingham. He was the embodiment of physical and moral courage.”
In 1963, police attacked young demonstrators with hoses and dogs during a peaceful march that lasted for several days. The conflict produced some of the most poignant images of the entire movement and turned national attention toward what was becoming an unavoidable injustice, even drawing the attention of President Kennedy. It lead to the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964.
Another lion of the Civil Rights movement, Georgia Rep. John Lewis, echoed the sentiment in his statement released Wednesday. “He was the soul and heart of the Birmingham movement,” he said. “Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in. He led an unbelievable children’s crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs that moved and shook the nation.”
To some reflecting Wednesday, including Dr. Manis, it seemed ironic that it was Dr. King and Medgar Evers, who met similar fates in death, and not Shuttlesworth who died of natural causes who seemed to seek it out.
“Fred Shuttlesworth did not become a martyr, and it was not for lack of trying,” Dr. Manis quipped. “One of the things people remember about those days is that that he tried to get killed in Birmingham. Now, yes, he was convinced that God would protect him. But even if he didn’t, he thought his death that would ultimately help the movement.”
In addition to the bombing of his home, Shuttlesworth survived two bombings of his church in Alabama — and a third after he left to preach in Cincinnati. In 1957, he decided he was going to enroll his children in all-white school. A week before that a young black man was kidnapped by four members of the Klan, who beat him, tried to castrate him and left him for dead, not before warning him that this was what was going to happen to anybody who tried to integrate the schools in Birmingham.
His body bloodied and beaten after an angry mob unleashed its fury, Shuttlesworth said, “This is the price you have to pay for freedom.”
Said Dr. Manis: “The average American may ask Fred, who? But no one who was in the movement sees him as anything other than a legendary hero.
“His militant style that angered whites, and in some cases was a reproach to some in the black middle class. But that same style inspired the foot soldiers, the salt of the earth members of black churches who filled the pews at those mass meetings, and then took it to the streets when it was time to turn prayers and hymns into footsteps.”
President Barack Obama, who pushed Shuttlesworth’s wheelchair as he and the First Lady helped commemorate the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches in Selma, Ala., echoed statements he made in New York during a speech to the NAACP at its 2009 convention.
“As one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Reverend Shuttlesworth dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans,” President Obama said. “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.”
For today, and perhaps tomorrow, the image of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s handsome face and tailored suit, his assured gait and inquiring gaze, and will take up residence on front pages of newspapers and websites yet again. His legacy is far less transient.
“As a country we are very careful to honor and to celebrate the lives of Americans who defend our liberty on foreign soil,” Dr. Manis said. “Well if we’re going to do that, we ought to also honor people who extended liberty to all Americans, and did so not on foreign fields, but in American streets. Nobody did that more than Fred Shuttlesworth.”