Shelley Stewart may be what the city of Birmingham would like to be when it grows up.
Resolute. Adept at overcoming obstacles. An advocate for education and human rights. Successful in business and philanthropy. Unencumbered by the past.
But to hear him tell it, he’s simply Mattie C.’s boy.
It’s a modest statement coming from a man who rose from a childhood of abuse and homelessness to become a nationally recognized radio personality, associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., CEO of a prominent advertising agency and organizer of a national educational foundation named for his mother.
Don Keith believes the story of Stewart’s life should be told, and he’s glad to be the writer who got to do it in Mattie C.’s Boy: The Shelley Stewart Story, published by NewSouth Inc. They’ll sign copies of the book at the Brookwood Village Books-A-Million at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“Shelley wanted to put down his story the way it really happened, and I’m a sucker for a good story,” Keith said. “I’m honored an amazed I had the opportunity to tell it. I hope I did it justice.”
By Stewart’s standards, he did. Stewart said Keith, an award-winning and bestselling local author, gave an account of his life that proves to be an effective follow up to The Road South, a memoir Stewart published in 2002 with Nathan H. Turner.
“The Road South stopped in the 1990s, and so many things have taken place in my life up to today,” he said. “Mattie C.’s Boy brought it up to the new and tells the whole story. That’s why Don Keith and I did this. It had nothing to do with dollars and cents. It’s about the honesty and truth of the whole story.”
It’s the story of how Mattie C. died almost 80 years ago, murdered by her husband in their Rosedale home as five-year-old Stewart and his three brothers watched. It’s the story of how he was homeless at age six, sought shelter in a horse stable, hid out with a white family in Irondale, and suffered abuse at the hands of relatives.
Stewart said his early experiences taught him that “love has no color, and meanness, prejudice, and discrimination are also color blind. All white people are not the same, and all black people are not the same.”
Race is addressed in Keith’s biography, in telling the stories of how Stewart was discharged from the Air Force after being labeled insane for exposing discriminatory practices; of how hundreds of his white radio fans helped him escape from a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen who were determined to kill him in 1960; how he played a role in mobilizing the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham; and how Stewart’s voice, reading the testimony of a key witness, helped convict one of the bombers who killed four children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
It isn’t lost on Stewart, who will be 80 his next birthday, that the book was released during the year of Birmingham’s 50 Years Forward observance commemorating civil rights advancements since 1963. But he doesn’t prefer to look at race as an issue of black or white, or even of civil rights.
“We are human beings,” he said. “We need to be looking at human rights. If you look at human rights, you don’t have to worry about boards on buses. You don’t have to worry about water fountains. You don’t have to worry about separate but equal. That’s what we need to be doing now. Why are we not stepping from civil rights to human rights? Are we afraid to do it?”
Keith believes readers will come away from Mattie C.’s Boy pondering those questions, as well as being inspired by Stewart’s story. “Here’s a man who’s overcome any hardship you can imagine,” the author said. “If he’s overcome all of that, how in the world can any of us give up? I hope it inspires people. If they take the time to read it, I know it will.”