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‘For courage,’ few like Fred Shuttlesworth

  • Written by Dr. Sybill C. Mitchell
Fred Lee Shuttlesworth was lauded as a courageous forerunner of the civil rights movement before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took center stage. “Back in that era when we were marching and boycotting our way to equality, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was widely recognized as a courageous and spirited leader. Dr. (Martin Luther) King himself, said of him, ‘Fred is one of the most courageous persons I know.’ Some of us thought he was a little crazy because no matter how many beatings he took, he would not be deterred…just kept on coming back…”

 – The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles

 Fred Shuttlesworth
 Rev. Fred Lee Shuttlesworth

Fred Lee Shuttlesworth was lauded as a courageous forerunner of the civil rights movement before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took center stage. His death in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday morning – say those who knew him – “closes a profound chapter of courage and determination.”

“I was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Columbus, Ga., when Rev. Shuttlesworth came to help us,” said Dr. Fred Lofton, pastor of Greater New Shiloh Baptist Church, Memphis. “He and Hosea Williams and Dr. King would come and organize marches and sit-ins to challenge the segregated facilities and lunch counters. We admired him because he took quite a few beatings at the hands of police and angry whites.”

Mr. Shuttlesworth, said Lofton, “wasn’t afraid of the water hoses and vicious dogs Bull Connor turned on him. We had a tiger on the front line, and he kept right on going. For courage, there were few like him.”

Born in Oxmoor, Ala., on March 18, 1922, Fred Lee Shuttlesworth was raised by his mother, Alberta Robinson Shuttlesworth and stepfather, William Nathan Shuttlesworth. They were farmers in the small rural town. Like other African-American youngsters, Shuttlesworth was shackled by the deep divide of racial segregation.

His parents believed in the merits of education, and he graduated from Rosedale High School in 1940. That very next year, he married Ruby Keeler, a practical nurse, and moved to Mobile, Ala., where he became a truck driver and studied auto mechanics.

Shuttlesworth was encouraged by a trusted mentor to enroll in a local Bible college, Cedar Grove Academy. In 1945, he delivered a sermon at Selma University, where he later earned a B.A. degree. With that sermon came a life change, and Shuttlesworth knew “God was calling him to ministry.” By 1950, he had become pastor of First Baptist Church in Selma, Ala. In 1953, he returned to Birmingham as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.

Mr. Shuttlesworth established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956, drawing the ire of white supremists across the state. In December that same year, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was illegal. Encouraged by Dr. King’s success in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he immediately announced that the ACMHR would test segregation laws in Birmingham.

On Christmas Day, the family home was bombed. The entire house was destroyed, and Mr. Shuttlesworth was blown from his bedroom to the basement. No one was injured. It was a miracle, many said.

“It escaped none of us that this man had divine protection from God,” said Dr. L. LaSimba Gray, pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church and president of the Memphis Chapter Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

“They kept on bombing the man’s house and attempting to bomb his church, and God just wouldn’t let them kill him.”

Across the South, black men in the community would follow leaders of the civil rights movement as self-appointed body guards,” said Dr. Gray.

“This was common all over. These men would be armed, openly carrying their weapons. They claimed it was their right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. Rev. Shuttlesworth had this kind of protection. He, Dr. King, and others were committed to non-violence. These men made it known that they did not hold to that philosophy if someone tried to harm their leaders.”

Dr. Gray was a young man coming up in the movement when Rev. Shuttlesworth and Dr. King were leading the charge.

“Those men were training the next generation of warriors to one day take leadership. Their contributions were priceless investments in our lives,” he said. “Their fearlessness instilled courage in us. I am forever indebted to Dr. Shuttlesworth.”

The Shuttlesworth family goes to war…

In 1957, Rev. Shuttlesworth and his wife, Ruby, attempted to enroll their daughter in an all-white public school. Although the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, Alabama Klansman had other ideas. A mob attacked the family while local police stood back and watched. Leading the assault was Bobby Cherry, the Klan leader also involved in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Cherry beat Shuttlesworth with chains and brass knuckles in the street while others kicked and stomped him mercilessly. Ruby Shuttlesworth was stabbed during the assault, but the children escaped serious injury. Rev. Shuttlesworth lost consciousness, and was dragged away to safety and driven away.

Later that same year, he joined Dr. King, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Mr. Shuttlesworth also worked with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in organizing the Freedom Rides.

In 1963, Mr. Shuttlesworth was hospitalized after Sheriff Bull Connor blasted him with water cannons as he led a mass nonviolent demonstration. He continued to work on desegregating Birmingham’s public accommodations and city schools.

“Rev. Shuttlesworth led the way for equality in the midst of the boiling pot – when Birmingham was called ‘Bombingham,’ said the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles.

“Despite what Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan did, he just kept on coming. He would not run. He could not run. The dream of equality for future generations of our children wouldn’t let him run. He wanted to be free. He wanted his people to be free.”

In 2000, Mr. Shuttlesworth was awarded the President’s Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton. In 2007, Mr. Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham after retiring from full-time ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio. The very next year, the Birmingham Airport Authority changed the name of Birmingham International Airport to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

The civil rights icon passed about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday after a long illness. He was 89. The Rev. Shuttlesworth is survived by his three children.

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