Fred Shuttlesworth was the greatest American of the 20th century.
I state this not as my opinion, though it certainly is that, but rather as a simple, self-evident fact. It is one that became especially pertinent after Shuttlesworth’s death on October 5, at the age of 89.
Reverend Shuttlesworth’s religious faith derived its power and authority from his utter willingness to offer his entire self in the service of that faith. “If God tells me to jump,” ran a variation of one of his signature rhetorical flourishes, “it’s my place to jump and it’s up to Him to fix a place for me to land.”
Equally strong was his belief that freedom, justice and equality form the bedrock of American values — a belief that was only strengthened by the bombings, the jailings, the beating, the firehosing he endured over the course of nearly a decade on the ramparts of the Civil Rights Movement. Shuttlesworth was the unquestioned general of the movement in Birmingham, and the fact that he led so fearlessly from the front earned him the undying devotion of the people he inspired to conquer fear and hatred and violence with courage and hope and peaceful resistance.
“There was a rare quality about Shuttlesworth,” the author Taylor Branch told me a few years ago. Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Parting the Waters, the first volume of an epic trilogy of the Movement, called Shuttlesworth “an honest monarch.”
“He claimed the prerogatives of the monarch in terms of his leadership style,” Branch explained. “But he was honest in his willingness to be out front when the shooting started. People responded to that.”
As Shuttlesworth saw it, the chain of events that brought him to Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church and propelled him to the forefront of the battle to change a city then known far and wide as the most segregated in America was preordained. “God wanted me to be in Birmingham,” I heard him declare more than once. “If He needs something done, He’ll find somebody to do it.”
Thusly convinced of the righteousness of his cause, Shuttlesworth adopted the constant refrain, “The Movement in Birmingham is Moving.” Under the auspices of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights — the organization he co-founded and led after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people was basically outlawed in Alabama in 1956 — there not only were there successive waves of mass meetings, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins and selective buying campaigns, but also a stream of legal challenges to Birmingham’s Jim Crow laws.
“It was like a battering ram,” Reverend C. Herbert Oliver said of the ACMHR in an interview I conducted with him in 2004.
Oliver almost certainly was the first African-American minister to challenge the authority of Bull Connor and the segregationist system in Birmingham; as the pastor of the Church of the Christian and Missionary Alliance downtown, he was arrested for violating the city’s ordinance against interracial meetings in 1948, five years before Shuttlesworth arrived at Bethel. Effectively run out of the city after that incident, Oliver returned in 1959 as pastor of a church in Bessemer and soon became actively involved in the Birmingham Movement. Nearly a half-century later, his admiration for Shuttlesworth was undiminished.
“It was clear that they were simply determined to push the barriers of racial segregation down,” said Oliver, who now resides in New York City. “No apologies, no excuse, just, ‘We want our rights as Americans and we must have them.’ That was Reverend Shuttlesworth’s belief, and it was his approach to confronting the system.”
That approach often unsettled not only Shuttlesworth’s nemesis Connor and the rest of Birmingham’s city government, but also the city’s top business leaders, who came belatedly but increasingly to the realization that the public relations beating Birmingham took throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s was crippling the city economically and would affect its future development. The ACMHR “battering ram” also frightened the African-American elite in the city, who viewed the working-class Shuttlesworth with some suspicion and his direct confrontation of segregation as less preferable than a more gradualist approach, based on negotiation. When it became clear that direct action was inevitable, they much preferred that it be led by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose middle-class background and extensive formal education made him one of them.
Read more about Rev. Shuttlesworth in his own words by clicking here.
This was fine with Shuttlesworth. He knew that the international media attention that came with King’s presence would bring tremendous pressure for change in Birmingham, that the images of Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs would drive home the message he had been preaching for nearly a decade. If he resented the class prejudice he faced from members of his own race and the need to subvert his authority to King’s — and at times, even years later, he most certainly did bristle at both of those things — he also never lost sight of King’s standing as the leader of the national movement, nor of the ultimate goal of ending segregation. Indeed, Shuttlesworth himself had been trying to convince King to come to Birmingham for years.
“I always thought Martin was a little scared of Birmingham,” he mused to me once. “As time went on, he came to see that this was the place where some ultimate confrontation might take place. Finally, I just got to the point where I told him, ‘If you don’t get over here, we’re gonna end segregation without you.’”
That was 1963, which of course proved to be the pivotal point in the history of both Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement. Nationally, the Movement had stalled and King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were nearly desperate for a victory. As Shuttlesworth noted, King had come to the realization that, in King’s own words, “If we can crack Birmingham, we can crack the South.”
Those words were prescient, as events in Birmingham in 1963 — bookended by the mass demonstrations that spring that resulted in iconic images of police and firemen attacking protesters and the tragic bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in late summer — gave the Movement the momentum that led to passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Neither that, nor very likely the Selma-to-Montgomery march of the next year and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would have happened — at least not on the same timetable or under the same circumstances — had Fred Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR not built such a strong organization in Birmingham.
“In my judgment,” Reverend Oliver said in the 2004 interview, Shuttlesworth “was and is the one who is most responsible for breaking down the walls of segregation in Birmingham and in Alabama and in the nation. I take nothing from Dr. King, but Shuttlesworth is the John the Baptist of the Movement — without him, the victory would not have happened.”
I was fortunate to spend a great deal of time with Reverend Shuttlesworth over several months in 2004 and 2005, when he remained a vital activist and speaker even in his early eighties and traveled frequently to Birmingham from his home in Cincinnati. Beyond many hours of formal interviews, this time included a lot of informal conversation — about current events, about the nature of spirituality, about human nature and human affairs, about life in general. He was wise, inquisitive, funny, and no matter how I felt before I sat down with him on any occasion, I always felt better when we parted ways.
Above all else, Shuttlesworth was always happy. One can get in trouble in some circles by referring to a person as being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” but this was and remains my overriding impression of Shuttlesworth. God had brought him through the darkness, and he was able to look back on the kind life that few in history have dared to live, secure in the knowledge that he had fulfilled the Christian injunction to give of oneself in the service of humankind, with no regard of the consequences to oneself.
At the same time, he was keenly aware of his place in history. I recall standing with him once outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, near the spot where his statue stands outside the main entrance. Pointing across the street at Dr. King’s statue in Kelly Ingram Park, I half-jokingly asked Shuttlesworth if he saw any symbolism in the fact that King’s statue rested on a pedestal in a kind of classical pose, while his own likeness was on the ground, rendered in a posture of walking.
“There might be something to that,” Shuttlesworth allowed. He paused for a moment, as if considering the question further, then turned to me with a question of his own.
“Are you going to write about this?”
There will be more about, and from, Reverend Shuttlesworth in the October 13 print edition of Weld, of which he will be the cover subject. In the meantime, I’ll end this tribute with a remembrance I have previously shared with only a very few people.
In the fall of 2008, not long after Shuttlesworth was moved to Birmingham following the stroke that largely incapacitated him and began the long decline that culminated with his death, I got word that he was in the hospital at St. Vincent’s. I had been out of contact with him for some time and was hesitant to visit, but was told that his wife, Sephira, would be with him and would be glad to see me. Still, a couple of weeks passed and I had not made it by.
That November 4 was Election Day. On the way to vote I happened to be driving past St. Vincent’s when it occurred to me that I would soon be casting my ballot for the first African-American President of the United States — and that the man who could be said to be most responsible for that fact was lying in a hospital bed right here in Birmingham, Alabama.
I wheeled into the hospital’s parking deck and made my way to Reverend Shuttlesworth’s room. He was sleeping, and there was no one else there. I went in and sat in the chair next to the bed. When I spoke his name, he stirred and whispered something I could not make out, but did not wake. I sat for maybe five minutes, reflecting on the endless tides of history, the difference that can be made by a single person of courage and conviction, and my own good fortune at having known such a person. Then I stood to leave, stopping for a moment to take his hand, which tightened itself ever so slightly in mine.
“Thank you, Reverend,” I said. “Thank you for everything.”