(NNPA) Fred Shuttlesworth, who recently died in his native Alabama at the age of 89, has been widely acknowledged as the Civil Rights Movement’s most courageous warrior. He was so hell-bent on shattering the walls of segregation in Birmingham and throughout the South that he wanted to die for the freedom of African-Americans.
That exceptional insight into the man who led the campaign to desegregate Birmingham long before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived on the scene was chronicled by Joe Davidson, his former son-in-law, in an article published in the September 1998 edition of Emerge magazine and reprinted in a book I edited, The Best of Emerge Magazine.
“I tried to get killed in Birmingham,” he told Davidson. “I tried to widow my wife and my children for God’s sake, because I literally believed that scripture that says ‘…whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.’ I had no fear, you understand.”
There were more than enough volunteers eager to grant Shuttlesworth his death wish.
“In the 15-year period beginning in 1950, there were so many bombings by White supremacists that Birmingham was dubbed ‘Bombingham,’” Davidson wrote. “A city library list compiled from police surveillance files documents 61 bombings during those years, including 45 racially related ones. Two of those were meant for Shuttlesworth.”
Davidson continued, “One exploded on Christmas night 1956. Earlier, Shuttlesworth had announced plans to desegregate city buses on Dec. 26. He was in his bedroom in the parsonage, adjacent to Bethel Baptist. Fifteen sticks of dynamite were placed between the church and the parsonage, about 2 feet from where Shuttlesworth was relaxing. His wife and four children also were in the house, as was a deacon and his wife. The bomb blew a hole in the floor, and its force blew Shuttlesworth into the hole. The bomb destroyed the house. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. As Shuttlesworth walked from rubble, a police officer, whom Shuttlesworth believes was a Klansman, told him: ‘I know these people, Reverend. I didn’t know they would go this far. If I was you, I’d get out of town.’
“Shuttlesworth replied, ‘Well, you’re not me. And tell your friends God didn’t save me to run. I’m here for the duration and the war is just beginning.’”
The next day, Shuttlesworth was sitting in the front seat of city buses, defying the city’s segregation laws.
U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first Black federal judge, said of Shuttlesworth: “He was the first Black man I knew who was totally unafraid of White folks.”
In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King praised Shuttlesworth, who estimates he was arrested 30 to 40 times, as “one of the nation’s most courageous freedom fighters.”
Not everyone supported Shuttlesworth’s efforts.
After the NAACP was banned from operating in Alabama, Shuttlesworth announced plans to form a new group, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
“One Black minister told Shuttlesworth the Lord wanted him to call off the meeting,” Davidson wrote. “Shuttlesworth replied, ‘When did the Lord start sending my messages through you?...The Lord told me to call it on.’”
In September 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated public schools, Shuttlesworth led a group that included his wife, Ruby, and their two daughters, Patricia and Ruby, to integrate Phillips High School. Shuttlesworth was savagely beaten by White segregationists wielding knives, brass knuckles, bicycle chains and baseball bats. His wife was stabbed and one of their daughters’ ankle was crushed in their car door.
When doctors at the hospital expressed surprise that Shuttlesworth hadn’t suffered a concussion or broken bones, he remarked, “The Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”
Hard-headed Shuttlesworth was not afraid to act.
“On the Freedom Rides in May 1961, he took action when others were stricken, immobilized by fear,” recalled John Lewis, now a member of Congress. “When Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety Birmingham, put Freedom Riders out in the heart of danger near the lonely Alabama/Tennessee state line, people were afraid to help us after a bus had been burned in Anniston. It was a brave and daring Fred Shuttlesworth who did not hesitate to meet us at the Greyhound Bus station and then even entertained us at his home, along with 12 others, before we returned to the rides.”
It was the 1963 Birmingham campaign that made Shuttlesworth famous.
Grainy black and white television images of police dogs and fire hoses turned on protestors, including children, awakened the nation’s moral conscience that spring and was instrumental in President John F. Kennedy’s decision to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Firemen aimed high-powered hoses at Shuttlesworth, knocking him up against a wall.
Eugene “Bull” Connor, told reporters, “I’m sorry I missed it…I wish they’d carry him away in a hearse.”
They didn’t. Shuttlesworth lived another 48 years and his name is immortalized in Birmingham. A street is named in his honor, a statue of him stands in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and three years ago, the airport was renamed the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
There will be three days of memorials to Shuttlesworth in Birmingham, beginning Oct. 22 and culminating with his funeral Oct. 24.
Bishop Calvin Woods, president of the Birmingham chapter of SCLC, told the Birmingham News, “He was a hard man for a hard town, who dealt with problems in a way no one else had ever dealt with them. He was a man of love, courage, faith, and he certainly was man of action. Because of his courage, he engendered courage in many of us.”
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.