By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on October 25, 2020
I first met Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth in May 1988 when he came to Birmingham, Alabama to meet with then-Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr. regarding a proposed civil rights museum the city wanted to build. Shuttlesworth worked on the project over the next four years. It was during this period that I learned the man, his contribution to the civil rights movement in Birmingham, and the price he paid for his manhood.
Despite fierce opposition from Birmingham’s white community and a spirited effort by local U.S. Attorney Frank Donaldson to derail the project, the new civil rights museum opened in November 1992. Standing at the entrance to the museum is a life-size statue of Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. The inscription reads: “With singular courage, he fired the imagination and raised the hopes of an oppressed people.” No truer words have ever been spoken.
In my view, Shuttlesworth was the heart and soul of the civil rights movement in Birmingham during the 1950s and 60s. The forces that supported Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene T. “Bull” Connor, a diehard segregationist, hated Shuttlesworth. This hatred was fanned by frequent news articles and editorials in The Birmingham News that painted Shuttlesworth as an “outside agitator” and “troublemaker” who was “neurotic, undemocratic, and willing to do almost anything to keep the spotlight on himself”.
In reality, Fred Shuttlesworth was a man of God who always stood up for the “least of these” and who paid a heavy personal price for doing so.
Shuttlesworth arrived in Birmingham from Selma in 1953. He became the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in North Birmingham’s Collegeville community. During his tenure as the clear leader of the Birmingham civil rights movement, Shuttlesworth’s church was bombed three times. His home was bombed on Christmas night in 1956. He was attacked and beaten by an angry white mob in September 1957 as he attempted to enroll his daughters in the all-white Phillips High School. State and local officials arrested Shuttlesworth numerous times causing him to spend 810 days in jail and to pay $2,400 in fines.
Montgomery Public Safety Commission L.B. Sullivan named Shuttlesworth (along with Reverends Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, and Soloman S. Seay) as a defendant in his landmark libel case against the New York Times. Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shuttlesworth and the other defendants in 1964, Alabama court officials had already seized their automobiles and personal property to satisfy two $500,000 judgements in the consolidated libel cases.
All of these events were occurring while the state of Alabama was arresting, jailing and prosecuting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a number of criminal charges, including tax evasion. Simultaneously, the FBI was pressuring Dr. King to kill himself. The FBI portrayed King as a “filthy, evil beast”.
When the weight of Shuttlesworth’s activism became too much for his church to bear, he accepted a pastorate in Cincinnati in 1961. Shuttlesworth continued his activism unabated until his death in 2011. Shuttlesworth’s remarkable life is chronicled in Andrew M. Manis’s book, “A Fire You Can’t Put Out”, The University of Alabama Press, 1999.
Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth understood the price he had to pay if he wanted to be a man in the Deep South. He willingly paid that price. God surrounded him with guardian angels, which enabled him to escape serious bodily injury and death on numerous occasions. To Shuttlesworth, the “order of the day” in Birmingham during the 1950s and 60s was “out of order”. He led by example.
Shuttlesworth and his family suffered personally from his unrelenting civil rights activism. He was a truly great man. His respect for humanity was second to none.
The names and faces of the people who opposed the civil rights movement in Birmingham are now in the dustbin of history. Fred Shuttlesworth’s name, face, and legacy will live forever. A piece of Shuttlesworth lives within me.
Whenever I think my life is difficult, or unfair, I reflect on the hell that Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Fannie Lou Hamer, and thousands of other civil rights activists endured. All of them are gone now. I am one of the few survivors – an aging warrior with a fire you can’t put out.
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