Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died in Birmingham on October 5, 2011. He was 89.
While the height of his national prominence came during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Shuttlesworth remained a tireless human rights advocate until he was well into his 80s, maintaining a travel and speaking schedule that would have been taxing for anyone at any age. He slowed some after having a benign brain tumor removed in 2005, and became largely incapacitated after a stroke in 2008.
Over roughly a two-year period beginning in the fall of 2003, Weld Publisher Mark Kelly spent considerable time with Shuttlesworth, mostly at various locations in Birmingham but also at Shuttlesworth’s then-home in Cincinnati and on a trip to and from a Shuttlesworth speaking engagement in Greene County, Ala. Their discussions — which included formal interviews, sessions filmed or recorded for various purposes, and informal conversations — are excerpted below.
Fred Shuttlesworth and Birmingham were made for each other. When Shuttlesworth arrived in Birmingham in 1953 as the new pastor of Bethel Baptist Church — he had spent most of his youth in the city, but had been away for a decade when he received the call from Bethel — Birmingham already was known widely as the foremost bastion of racial segregation in America. The 31-year-old preacher might have been the only person in the world willing to single-handedly take on a way of life that not only was ingrained, but enforced by the rule of law — a marriage of the person and the times that Shuttlesworth acknowledged throughout his life with the assertion, “that God wanted me to come to Bethel.”
Shuttlesworth spoke often of his love for the congregation at Bethel and their devotion to the Movement. He also spoke of his concern that Bethel be accorded its due as the “mother church” of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
It was the headquarters for the Movement. I think of it as a starting point, as the Old North Church was in the American Revolution. God always has somewhere that someone will raise his voice in truth against injustice. It was time for God to begin work in Birmingham, making the country look at itself and its people. When I started preaching against segregation, this beautiful church coalesced around me. I had no doubt that God had sent me to Bethel, and I knew that this was the beginning of the end of segregation.
Bethel was the most wonderful and beautiful congregation because they wanted to do something. They accepted me, they accepted what I thought. It’s unusual that a church follows a preacher into danger, but they followed me without complaint. They gave me their complete allegiance, and I still thank God for them every day.
I was ready for Birmingham. Birmingham wasn’t ready for me.
My emphasis starting off was that we ought to do better in Birmingham. Of course, the black people of Birmingham, we didn’t have anywhere to go but forward. Not only that, but we had reached the point where people were willing to sacrifice to make us go forward, to make the city go forward against its will. God had some great people in Birmingham, and many of the black people, especially, who were here at that time ought to be recognized as some of the greatest soldiers ever in the army of God.
By 1956, Shuttlesworth had become a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as membership chairman for the Alabama Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When Alabama Attorney General — later Governor — John Patterson obtained an injunction outlawing the NAACP in Alabama in the spring of that year, Shuttlesworth and 10 others founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which would be the primary vehicle for civil rights activities in Birmingham.
Shuttlesworth recalled the events surrounding the injunction against the NAACP and his subsequent decision to violate the injunction by forming a new organization.
People were calling me, saying, “What can we do?” Well, I didn’t know what to do. I knew God had to have an answer, he just hadn’t revealed it to me then.
It looked to me like they were trying to kill hope in people’s minds, because without at least the hope that a person can be free and be received by others, he’s not a full person. Slavery — domination —— has always been bad in God’s mind. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament talk about the treatment of people. That’s Christ’s commission, you know, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel,” to heal, to relieve the poor. I think that’s every minister’s job and every Christian’s. If the church would just be the church, we could do more in the world to save the world.
That is what was on my mind and in my heart while people were calling and asking me what we were going to do. That Saturday [four days after the injunction was served on the NAACP], about four o’clock in the morning, I woke out of a strange dream. I sat up in the bed, and it seemed that something was speaking to my consciousness, drumming into it. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. That’s what I heard, and I didn’t question it. I knew instantaneously that it was God, telling me to call a mass meeting to see if the Negroes of Birmingham were willing to organize and attack this awful thing.
I knew it would mean jail. So I called Reverend T.L. Lane, who was my best friend then, and I said, “Lane, I’m gonna have to call a mass meeting.” He said, “You gonna violate the injunction?”, and I said, “Well, this is what’s on my mind.” I told him that I wanted at least two or three other ministers to go to jail with me. I said, “That would look better than just one. But I’m saying to you and will say to others that if I have to do it alone, I’ll do it.”
Ultimately, Shuttlesworth got 10 other co-founders, included several male ministers and one woman, stalwart activist Lucinda B. Robey. Support among Birmingham’s black community, however, was far from unanimous (“There were plenty who thought I was a damn fool,” Shuttlesworth once recalled with characteristic blunt honesty). The Sunday night before the scheduled mass meeting to begin organizing civil rights protests, Shuttlesworth received a telephone call at home from Dr. Luke Beard, then the pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church.
There were always a few blacks who could talk to the white people, but they never got anyplace. So Beard called me: “Reverend, the Lord told me to tell you to call that meeting off.” [Laughs.] I knew the Lord hadn’t said nothing to him, because the Lord doesn’t like scared preachers.
So I said, “Doctor, when did the Lord start sending my messages through you?” [Laughs.] He had to sort of think about that for a minute. Then he said, “Well, I’ve just been thinking and praying and He told me He wants you to call it off.” I said, “I’ll tell you what. Go back and ask the Lord if He’s sure.” And I hung up.
Sure enough, he called back about two hours later. I wanted to curse him out, but I didn’t. He told me that the Lord really did want me to call it off. I said, “Look here, Beard. You go back one more time and tell the Lord I’m calling the meeting on unless He comes down here Himself and tells me to call it off. And tell Him he better show me the nail scars in his hands and the spear wound in His side, or I ain’t gonna call it off even then.”
With no such visitation forthcoming, the mass meeting went on as planned, and Shuttlesworth was elected to the job he referred to as “my calling from Creation,” that of president of the ACMHR. As expected, the group’s activities made Shuttlesworth a target — for Birmingham’s city fathers, for Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor in particular, and for the Ku Klux Klan. Bethel would be bombed twice during his tenure there, including a blast on Christmas Night of 1956 that virtually destroyed the parsonage next door to the church but left the minister and his family unscathed.
When we started agitating, the feeling even among most black people at that time was that we ought to just keep to ourselves and wait for things to get better. But I was never satisfied with the idea of doing nothing, or just criticizing without offering some call to positive action.
There was a three-tiered system in Birmingham against anybody who wanted to tear down segregation. If the Klan don’t get you, then the police will, and if the police miss you, the courts will stop you. I never believed that the majority of white people would beat me up in the streets, or that they would wish me any harm. That was the Klan. That was Bull Connor. That was the courts. It was oppression, and the object of oppression is to always to take away hope and instill fear. Fear keeps people from being their best. It sows bitterness and distrust. We knew that we had to remain strong, and we did.
I remember the press always really did a job of stirring up the Klan. Whenever the newspaper printed my name, they printed it as Reverend F.L. Shuttlesworth, 3121 29th Avenue North, or whatever it was. They were telling the Klan where to put the bomb, I guess.
The Klan intended to blow me into heaven, but God had bigger purposes. I was kept by His grace, and I must tell you, that incident really took fear out of my mind once and for all. When that bomb didn’t kill me, I realized how close God was to me. Closer than the clothes on your back, the spirit of God can get in you. It can fortify you and make you almost unaware of danger, or at least you don’t care about danger. You learn that you live only for His purposes, and that when you put your physical self into what you believe, that pleases God more. After the bomb, I was never afraid again.
For Shuttlesworth, the defining moment of his devotion to the principles of nonviolent protest came on Sept. 9, 1957. On that day, Shuttlesworth — driven by Rev. J.S. Phifer and accompanied by his wife, two of his daughters and two other children — Shuttlesworth arrived at Phillips High School in downtown Birmingham with the objective of enrolling the children to integrate the school. Emerging from the car, he was met by a mob of whites.
It was a brilliant morning. Bright, bright sunlight. Once I got out of the car, they started kicking me, hitting me with chains and brass knuckles, calling me some of everything. I heard somebody yell, “It’s all over today! Let’s get this SOB!”— and he didn’t mean “sweet old boy,” either. They tried to kill me.
After I went down the first time, they kept knocking me down, kicking, stomping me. I had taken so many blows that every time somebody hit me with brass knuckles or a chain, I would see brief darkness. I knew I had to get back to the car, or else I was going to die on that sidewalk. There was a man at the car, swinging a chain. He was going to get the last lick — and it might have been the last lick, too. I could see I had to pass him to get in the car.
But mobs are so wild. Somebody got in his way and I sort of fell past him into the open car. Phifer had been smart enough to leave the door open, and when I fell onto the seat, he reached over and pulled me on in some more.
After the narrow escape from the mob, Phifer sped to what now is University Hospital, where Shuttlesworth, still conscious and coherent despite the beating — daughter Ricky later recalled that as the car pulled away from Phillips he had the presence of mind to tell Phifer not to run the stop sign at the corner — was wheeled into the emergency room on a stretcher.
Two young nurses were assigned to clean me up. One of them kept saying, “Who would be fool enough to get themselves beat up like this?” The only word I could finally say to her at that time was, “You wouldn’t understand if I told you.” Then the other one said, “Our job is not to question him, it’s to get him ready for the doctor to see him.” I thanked her.
The doctor came in and I realized that he was upset. He looked me over for a minute, and then he said, “This is such a shame. I apologize for my city.” I said, “Doctor, you don’t have to apologize. It was necessary that we come to this today.” He examined me some more and said he couldn’t believe it, that I didn’t seem to have a concussion. I told him the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard skull.
The doctor wanted to keep Shuttlesworth hospitalized for observation. Considering that the Birmingham Police Department was rife with Klan members, the minister told the doctor he wanted to go home, so that “If I die, at least I’ll die among my friends.”
“I knew I was going to live,” Shuttlesworth told me, adding that his real reason for leaving the hospital was to get to a mass meeting scheduled for that evening. “I knew that I had to get there to show people what nonviolence really is.”
By that time, word of the beating had spread, and nearly a half-century later, he recalled the scene — “people were crowded around outside, and inside it full up to the balcony” — at the church as he arrived.
Everybody was angry. I could hear them cursing when I was going through the crowd on the outside, the women cursing just as bad as the men. I had my arm in a sling, which made them even madder. I had the same suit on, with holes in it where my knees had scraped the ground that morning. When I got in, I didn’t sit behind the pulpit as I usually did. I got a chair and sat right up on the edge of the stage, where everybody could see me. Some were crying, and even there inside the sanctuary I could hear a few words you don’t use in Sunday school.
I sat there until it got quiet. Then I said, “Well. Everybody in here is mad tonight, isn’t that right?” And they said, “Yeah, yeah,” and I heard some more cursing. “In fact, folks in here tonight are mad as hell,” and they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And I said, “I tell you what, everybody who’s mad tonight, stand up.” And everybody stood up but me. So I sat them back down, then said, “Now. Everybody who got beaten up today and is mad about that, you stand up.” Of course, nobody stood, including me. I let that sink in for a minute, then I said, “I was beaten up today, and I’m not angry. I’m not even mad at the people who did it. I forgive them because that’s the way the Lord wants us to live.
“That’s what nonviolence means, that you’re taking it for the Lord’s sake, not for your sake. We are doing a thing here in Birmingham, and we must go through the darkness in order that the light might come. We must show people by our actions here that we can pass through this. I came tonight to tell you that this is nonviolence. You can pray about what happened today, but be glad that it happened because it says we are passing through this stage.
“And I came to tell you this: Not one brick or rock will be thrown, not one windowpane broken by us. When we leave here tonight, we are going to our homes. Don’t run about, don’t lag in the streets. To make sure you know I mean what I say, I want any person here tonight who sees somebody throw a rock or break a window to get word to my house in the morning, so I can go down and swear out the warrant myself to have them put in jail. We are not going to have violence in the street as we seek freedom. Not by us.”
Under Shuttlesworth’s leadership, the Movement in Birmingham flourished. Over several years’ time, he periodically prevailed on King to have the SCLC mount a major campaign in “America’s Johannesburg.” King resisted until the spring of 1963, when, badly in need of a “victory,” he agreed to join Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR in implementing “Project C,” a campaign of marches and protests that included the participation of schoolchildren. The resulting images of dogs and fire hoses turned on the protesters and of children being jailed alongside adults, riveted the attention of the world on Birmingham, as Shuttlesworth had known it would.
I was always fortunate to have other people around me who believed like I did, that God puts you where he wants you to be for His purpose. That’s why the Birmingham Movement was always strong, and Martin knew he could depend upon it.
I would talk to Martin and tell him that Birmingham was where it was at, that we needed him here and he needed to be here. I told him we were doing something that was the epitome of nonviolence, and if he didn’t get to Birmingham, we were going to go ahead and end segregation without him.
It was literally children who broke the back of segregation. They presented themselves, and it was one of the most beautiful pictures of my life to have seen those young people coming in streams to be taught what freedom really means. They were hungry at that time for some understanding of who they were and how they ought to relate to God and depend on God to carry them through crisis.
If you can’t take it, you can’t make it. If you really want to do the Lord’s work, you have to put yourself on the line and be willing to suffer in the right way, not retaliating. You have to be ready to not only give of yourself, you have to really offer everything you have on the altar of sacrifice. That’s what those children learned, and that’s what they represented when they went out to face what they faced. They took it on themselves to pay for our freedom.
In his biography of Shuttlesworth, A Fire You Can’t Put Out, Andrew Manis took note of the role of religious faith in the minister’s life and actions in the Movement. Like many religious persons who see God’s hand in great events, Manis wrote, Fred shared the interpretation [of the Movement] that “it was… God moving in human history.” Till the end of his life, nearly every sentence Shuttlesworth uttered had some direct or indirect reference to the power of spirituality in human affairs, and the role God played in bringing down segregation in Birmingham, Ala. and America.
I always believed in an awesome God, ever since I was small. My Bible tells me that God looks at governments and nations as grasshoppers and dirt. It doesn’t get much plainer than that. Satan is powerful, but God is all-powerful.
I have the advantage of having been brought through some unusual things, but God does the unusual when He wants the unusual to happen. So I have always thought that people ought to realize how much God is in our business even when we don’t know it. You don’t have to hunt God. If we had to hunt Him, we’d be in a terrible situation, but we just have to acknowledge Him, because He’s everywhere.
I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but we have not kept our relationship with the Creator right. This isn’t a sermon [laughs], but I am a preacher, so a little preaching might get in it. If people would just read the 59th chapter of Isaiah, which talks about, “the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, nor His ear heavy that it cannot hear,” but then tells us that “your iniquities have separated you from God and your sins have hid His face from you.” It’s on us to get right with God, because He’s already right with us.
God gives you joy in the midst of sorrow and woe. You can reach Him if you go to Him the way you should. I have never felt as if I would have done anything differently. If I felt again the same drive, the same pressures of intensity and need and faith that I did then, I would go through everything again, because I believe now as I believed then. I know that God is real.
For all that happened to him on the streets of Birmingham, Shuttlesworth maintained the view that the city should symbolize the triumph of freedom, justice and equality. One of his signature lines when asked to share his thoughts about Birmingham was, “The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.” That proven laugh-getter aside, his feelings ran deep.
There’s no place like Birmingham in my heart. I love Birmingham, and not just because some of my blood was spilled in its streets. I love it because it’s a place where we can look out and see where we’ve come from and how far God has brought us.
Because of what happened in Birmingham, legal segregation no longer exists. But we still need to be aware that the results of brotherhood have not fully arrived. I look for black people and white people in this city to rise up against the hate and meanness that still exists in our world. We have the history of things having happened, so we have some authority to do that.
I’d like to see all of the people of Birmingham embrace each other in love, in the spirit of fellowship and brotherhood. To the extent that happens, Birmingham, which once rested on the ash heap of civilization, can become known as a shining example of how people can change and how we can move forward in human relations. God chose Birmingham, which means He chose all of us, then and now. If we’re going to do well in Birmingham, we need to offer Him thanks and commit ourselves not to fail Him or each other.
What made Shuttlesworth Shuttlesworth? How did he view his role in the Movement? What was his philosophy of life?
I like the word agitate. Like the old song says, we’re supposed to be out on the battlefield for the Lord. I don’t care about right wing and left wing. I’m on God’s side.
I’ve often thought that maybe there’s just two types of people: Those that work themselves to death and those who will let them — and not only let them, but sometimes put little things in the way to make that death comes quicker. God counsels patience, but only up to a point. Sometimes you want it to be six o’clock, but it can’t be six o’clock until five o’clock comes and goes. Waiting for six o’clock is patience. That’s fine, but we should also remember that God might feed the birds, but he don’t throw the food in their nests.
Martin knew that I was not afraid to speak up. He didn’t always count that as a blessing [laughs], but he knew where I was coming from. You know, I never said anything just to show myself. I just think that God gives you the thing to come out in a crisis. I’ve always just tried to be myself and be honest, which is the best thing anybody can do.
I don’t want to be seen as a super person, or as one who tries to set himself up as some kind of deity. I just want to encourage people to be brotherly and sisterly toward one another. Paul said, “If you could just know what I know and feel what I feel.” He put it into powerful words, “I could wish myself accursed to hell for my brother.” He just wished people could understand how simply God wants us to live life and how beautiful it could be if we did. That’s the way I feel.
God did not intend many of us to lead revolutionary lives, confronting violence and hatred and meanness directly. God takes us rather on an evolutionary path, where we move up gradually, so that each experience teaches us more about who we are and where we’ve been and the direction we ought to be going. In the Christian vernacular, each victory in faith helps us some other victory to win.
I never did think the human rights struggle was just for black folks. Enough sacrifice has been made that anybody ought to feel ashamed not to want freedom.
I’m happy with my life. I believe the gates of heaven are going to open up for me, so I’m ready to go, whenever that is. I’ve got enough sense to know that I’ve only been kept this long by God’s grace. I never did anything to insulate myself because I always just figured you can’t lose if your purpose is right.
People say, “Fred, you’re getting old, you ought to retire and take time to rest.” I say, “No, not now, because when I get to heaven, rest is all I’m gonna do. In the meantime, I got to work, for the night is coming soon enough.”
Rev. Shuttlesworth’s body will be laid in state at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 23. A public funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 24 at Faith Chapel Christian Center.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Mark Kelly’s tribute to Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth: The Greatest American, here.