Remembering Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, A Civil Rights Hero
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth refused to back down despite huge risks, enduring arrests, beatings and injuries from fire hoses aimed at blacks marching for racial equality in the segregated South of the early 1960s. He died this week at age 89, lauded for his fearlessness in that fight.
When others feared standing up to fire hoses and snarling police dogs in his native Alabama, Shuttlesworth soldiered on with his civil rights campaign. Alabama's first black federal judge, U.W. Clemon, said Shuttlesworth flung himself at injustice well knowing he could be killed at any moment.
"He was the first black man I knew who was totally unafraid of white folks," said Clemon, a practicing lawyer since retired from the bench.
Shuttlesworth died Wednesday at a Birmingham hospital.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, another activist in the civil rights movement led by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., called Shuttlesworth "fearless, determined, courageous."
Lewis organized his own defiant sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., in his student days and also met with arrests and physical attacks.
"When others did not have the courage to stand up, speak up and speak out, Fred Shuttlesworth put all he had on the line to end segregation in Birmingham and the state of Alabama," the Georgia Democrat said. "He was beaten with chains, his church was bombed, and he lived under constant threat of physical violence."
In an era of seething racial tensions, Shuttlesworth survived a 1956 bombing, an assault during a 1957 protest, chest injuries when Birmingham authorities turned fire hoses on demonstrators in 1963, and countless arrests. He personally exhorted King to bring his supporters to Birmingham to fight for equality as the civil rights movement gained traction.
King would go on to reap international attention, overshadowing the rest, yet he signaled he himself admired Shuttlesworth.
In his 1963 book "Why We Can't Wait," King himself called Shuttlesworth "one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters ... a wiry, energetic and indomitable man."
Born March 18, 1922, near Montgomery and raised in Birmingham, Shuttlesworth drove a truck for a time, studied theology by night and was ordained in 1948. He became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953 and met King in 1954 – a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus.
Televised scenes of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on marchers, even children, in the spring of 1963 helped the rest of the nation grasp the depth of racial animosities in the South.
Referring to the city's notoriously racist safety commissioner, Shuttlesworth would tell followers, "We're telling ol' `Bull' Connor right here tonight that we're on the march and we're not going to stop marching until we get our rights."
According to a May 1963 New York Times profile of Shuttlesworth, Connor responded to word that Shuttlesworth had been injured by the spray of fire hoses by saying: "I'm sorry I missed it. ... I wish they'd carried him away in a hearse."
Fellow civil rights pioneer the Rev. Joseph Lowery said of Shuttlesworth: "When God made Bull Connor, one of the real negative forces in this country, he was sure to make Fred Shuttlesworth."
In January 1956, King's Montgomery home was bombed while he attended a rally. Months later on Christmas night 1956, 16 sticks of dynamite detonated outside Shuttlesworth's bedroom as he slept at the Bethel Baptist parsonage. No one was injured in either bombing, and the day after he was targeted, Shuttlesworth led a protest against segregation on buses in Birmingham. Then in 1957, he was beaten by a mob when he tried to enroll two of his children in an all-white school in Birmingham.
After the turbulent times ended, Shuttlesworth took up a new chapter.
He remained active in the movement in Alabama and regularly visited but moved in 1961 to Cincinnati, where he was a pastor for most of the next 47 years. In Cincinnati, Shuttlesworth left Revelation Baptist Church and became pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church in 1966.
In 2004, he was briefly president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, resigning after about three months complaining board members were trying to micromanage the organization.
He moved back to Birmingham in February 2008 for rehabilitation after a mild stroke.
In November 2008, Shuttlesworth watched from a hospital bed as Barack Obama was elected the nation's first African-American president. The year before, Obama had pushed Shuttlesworth's wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during a commemoration of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.
On Wednesday, Obama recalled that moment on the bridge – "a symbol of the sacrifices that he and so many others made in the name of equality." He said Shuttlesworth's fight benefited all Americans and "America owes Reverend Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude."
Associated Press writers Errin Haines in Atlanta, Kendal Weaver in Montgomery, Ala., and Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.