Remembering Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth: Civil Rights Leader ‘Made the Movement’

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The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a storied civil rights leader who survived beatings and bombings in Alabama a half-century ago as he fought against racial injustice alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. He was 89.

He died at Princeton Baptist Medical Center, his wife, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, said. He also lived in Birmingham.
It was in that city in the spring of 1963 that Mr. Shuttlesworth, an important ally of Dr. King, organized two tumultuous weeks of daily demonstrations by black children, students, clergymen and others against a rigidly segregated society.
Graphic scenes of helmeted police officers and firefighters under the direction of T. Eugene (Bull) Connor, Birmingham’s intransigent public safety commissioner, scattering peaceful marchers with fire hoses, police dogs and nightsticks, provoked a national outcry.
The brutality helped galvanize the nation’s conscience, as did the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of a black church in Birmingham that summer, which killed four girls at Sunday school. Those events led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after the historic Alabama marches that year from Selma to Montgomery, which Mr. Shuttlesworth also helped organize. The laws were the bedrock of civil rights legislation.
“Without Fred Shuttlesworth laying the groundwork, those demonstrations in Birmingham would not have been as successful,” said Andrew M. Manis, author of “A Fire You Can’t Put Out,” a biography of Mr. Shuttlesworth. “Birmingham led to Selma, and those two became the basis of the civil rights struggle.”
Mr. Shuttlesworth, he added, had “no equal in terms of courage and putting his life in the line of fire” to battle segregation.
Mr. Shuttlesworth joined with Dr. King in 1957 as one of the four founding ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the engine of Dr. King’s effort to unify the black clergy and their flocks to combat Jim Crow laws. At the time, Mr. Shuttlesworth was leader of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which he had helped form in 1956 to replace the Alabama offices of the N.A.A.C.P., shut down for years by court injunction.
Outside their roles as men of the cloth and civil rights advocates, however, Mr. Shuttlesworth and Dr. King stood in sharp contrast to each other in terms of background, personality and strategies.
Dr. King was a polished product of Atlanta’s black middle class. A graduate of Morehouse College, he held a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University. Fred Shuttlesworth was a child of poor black Alabama whose ministerial degree was from an unaccredited black school. (He later earned a master’s degree in education from Alabama State College.)
Where Dr. King could deliver thunderous oratory and move audiences by his reasoned convictions and faith, Mr. Shuttlesworth was fiery, whether preaching in the pulpit or standing up to Bull Connor, who dueled with him for years in street protests and boycotts leading up to their historic 1963 showdown.
Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 book about the struggle in Birmingham, wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Shuttlesworth was known among some civil rights activists as “the Wild Man from Birmingham.”
“Among the youthful ‘elders’ of the movement,” she added, “he was Martin Luther King’s most effective and insistent foil: blunt where King was soothing, driven where King was leisurely, and most important, confrontational where King was conciliatory — meaning, critically, that he was more upsetting than King in the eyes of the white public.”
Mr. Shuttlesworth was temperamental, even obstinate, and championed action and confrontation over words. He could antagonize segregationists and allies alike, quarreling with his allies behind closed doors.
But few doubted his courage. In the years before 1963 he was arrested time and again — 30 to 40 times by his count — on charges aimed at impeding peaceful protests. He was repeatedly jailed and twice the target of bombs.
In one instance, on Christmas night 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. “The wall and the floor were blown out,” Ms. McWhorter wrote, “and the mattress heaved into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet.”
When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”
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SOURCE: The New York Times
Jon Nordheimer

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