Fred Shuttlesworth Biography
Invited to Give Sermons, Outfoxed Segregationist Police Commissioner, Injured by Fire House
Minister, civil rights leader
The Rev. Martin Luther King and his associates, who waged the battle for civil rights on a national scale, are remembered today as the movement's leaders. Less well known, even though a statue of him stands in front of the Birmingham, Alabama, Civil Rights Institute, is the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. But it was the Rev. Shuttlesworth who battled Birmingham's notorious police chief, Eugene "Bull" Connor, year in and year out, surviving bombings and numerous instances of violence from official or non-uniformed thugs. "Shuttlesworth is one of those persons who was on fire, and the most important thing to know about him is that he has no equal in terms of courage and putting his life in the line of fire to challenge segregation," his biographer Andrew Manis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Shuttlesworth was born Freddie Lee Robinson on March 18, 1922, in Mt. Meigs, in Alabama's Montgomery County. He grew up in Oxmoor, a segregated community near Birmingham, and received a new last name after his mother married coal miner William Nathan Shuttlesworth. The family raised money on the side by sharecropping and by making moonshine liquor, which got Shuttlesworth sentenced to two years' probation in 1940. Shuttlesworth's mother worked as a white family's maid, and Shuttlesworth himself held various jobs including cement plant worker. After marrying the former Ruby Lanette Keeler in 1942, Shuttlesworth worked as a civilian truck driver at a U.S. Army air base in Mobile during World War II.
Invited to Give
Though raised in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church, Shuttlesworth began attending a Baptist church in 1943. Within a few months the church's preacher was inviting him to give guest sermons, and Shuttlesworth was attending Cedar Grove Academy Bible College in Prichard, Alabama, outside Mobile. After leaving Mobile with his growing family of two daughters and one son, Shuttlesworth enrolled at Selma University. He earned a bachelor's degree there, a master's in education at Alabama State College, and an advanced divinity degree at Birmingham Baptist College. In 1948 Shuttlesworth began his preaching career in a series of small Alabama churches. After the birth of one more daughter in 1949, he became the pastor at Selma's First Baptist Church.
Returning to Birmingham late in 1952, Shuttlesworth became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church the following spring. On May 17, 1954, he noticed newspaper headlines announcing the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation. It was, he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the second biggest day of his life; the first was when he became a Christian. "I felt like I was a man, like I had rights." His first foray into social activism came in July of 1955, when he petitioned Birmingham's city council to hire black police officers. Rosa Parks' epochal bus ride in Montgomery was still several months away.
Shuttlesworth's petition was ignored, but over the next decade he was in constant motion, challenging the city's white power structure on every front. In 1956 he founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, one of whose first actions was to demand the desegregation of Birmingham's city buses in the wake of the successful Montgomery bus boycott that followed Parks' ride. The following year, he helped organize the better-known Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Shuttlesworth preached a 1956 Christmas sermon in which he said (as quoted in the Plain Dealer), "If it takes being killed to get integration, I'll do just that thing. For God is with me all the way." That night, Ku Klux Klan members threw dynamite sticks into the basement of Shuttlesworth's house, a parson-age attached to Bethel Baptist. Even the mattress on which he slept was destroyed, but he was unhurt. "The bomb had my name on it, but God erased it," he told the crowd that gathered.
Outfoxed Segregationist Police Commissioner
In September of 1957, Shuttlesworth was beaten with bicycle chains and baseball bats as he tried to enroll two of his daughters at an all-white elementary school. That November his nemesis, "Bull" Connor, a high school dropout and former baseball announcer, was elected public safety commissioner and soon suggested that Shuttlesworth himself had engineered the Christmas Day bombing. Asked to take a polygraph test, Shuttles-worth agreed to do so if Connor would do the same, but Connor refused. Bethel Baptist was bombed again on June 29, 1958. As the Birmingham Transit Company dragged its feet on bus integration, Shuttlesworth called on blacks to ignore the company's policies and was jailed for five days.
Having for some time urged the Rev. Martin Luther King to adopt more confrontational tactics (and not always finding support among Birmingham's black middle class), Shuttlesworth got a boost in 1960 when African-American college students in North Carolina began a series of sit-ins at segregated department stores. By March of that year, Shuttlesworth had been arrested after organizing a parallel effort by Birmingham students. In early 1961 a CBS television documentary, Who Speaks for Birmingham?, called Shuttlesworth (according to Manis) "the man most feared by southern racists and the voice of the new militancy among Birmingham Negroes."
In the summer of 1961 Shuttlesworth accepted the pastorate of Revelation Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, a larger congregation than the one at Bethel. But he kept in close touch with events in Birmingham and continued to play a decisive role in the civil rights struggle there, flying in after Bethel was bombed for a third time on December 14, 1962, as children rehearsed a Christmas pageant. In the spring of 1963, Shuttlesworth, working with King and the SCLC, launched Project C (which stood for "confrontation") with a series of department store sit-ins by students from Miles College. Demonstrations grew after King's arrest on Good Friday and the publication of his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," and they were paced by repressive police tactics.
Injured by Fire House
During a May 6 demonstration, Shuttlesworth was hit by a fire hose, thrown against the wall of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—five months before it too was bombed, killing four young girls—and hospitalized with a rib injury. Shuttlesworth and King disagreed over whether to call off the demonstrations after white merchants offered partial concessions, with King ultimately carrying the day. Segregation was already in retreat when the U.S. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the two cornerstones of modern equal-rights laws.
Shuttlesworth continued to live and preach in Cincinnati, sometimes tangling with city officials and local institutions over hiring practices. His Revelation Baptist congregation split in two at one point, with some claiming that he had misused church funds; others, however, followed him and created a new congregation, Greater New Light Baptist Church. In 1967 Shuttlesworth tried to calm violent demonstrations in Cincinnati over the ongoing issue of police brutality. National consciousness of his courageous struggles faded after King's assassination in 1968.
Returning to Birmingham in 1988 at the invitation of Mayor Richard Arrington to help lobby for a new civil rights museum, Shuttlesworth saw a statue of himself erected in front of the building when it opened in 1992. He also served on the institution's board of directors. But he wasn't ready for retirement of any kind, even as he approached 80 years of age in the early 2000s. After the Rev. Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, stepped down as head of a fractured SCLC, Shuttlesworth served a term as interim president in 2003 and 2004. Outraged over widely publicized voting irregularities in Florida during the 2000 U.S. presidential election, he vowed to take to the streets to prevent a repeat.
"Laptops won't do it," Shuttlesworth told the Plain Dealer, ridiculing the high-tech methods of his younger successors. "We will have demonstrations down there. I want to create an external interest in the right to vote all over again." Looking back on his brushes with death at the height of the civil rights struggle, Shuttlesworth was philosophical. "It helps to have a little divine insanity," he told the Tampa Tribune. "That's when you're willing to suffer and die for something. Christ did it for us, so I don't think it's asking too much to do it for him."
Garrow, David J., ed., Birmingham, Alabama, 1956-1963: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights, Carlson, 1989.
Hampton, Henry, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s, Bantam, 1980.
Manis, Andrew M., A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, University of Alabama Press, 1999.
White, Marjorie L., comp., A Walk to Freedom: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, 1956-1964. Birmingham Historical Society, 1998.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 28, 1993, p. A2; May 23, 2002, p. A12; December 25, 2003, p. D1; July 26, 2004, p. A6.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 11, 2004, p. 9.
Tampa Tribune, September 7, 1999, p. Nation/World-1.
—James M. Manheim
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