Civil Rights Icon Fred Shuttlesworth Dies

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the civil rights icon hailed in his native Alabama as a “black Moses,” died Wednesday. He was 89.

Described in a 1961 CBS documentary as “the man most feared by Southern racists,” Shuttlesworth survived bombings, beatings, repeated jailings and other attacks — physical and financial — in his unyielding determination to heal the country’s most enduring, divisive and volatile chasm.

“They were trying to blow me into heaven,” Shuttlesworth, who spent most of his adult life in Cincinnati, said of those who violently opposed him in Birmingham and throughout the South. “But God wanted me on Earth.”

“Daddy lived an incredible life and now he’s at peace,” said Patricia Shuttlesworth Massengill, his eldest daughter. Massengill, along with her sister Ruby Bester and their brother Fred Shuttlesworth Jr., traveled to Birmingham from Cincinnati on Tuesday and spent about three hours “praying and talking to” their father, whose once thundering voice was silenced several years ago by a stroke. Their other sibling, Carolyn Shuttlesworth, visited their father in a Birmingham hospice last week.

“He couldn’t talk to us, but I hope he heard us,” Massengill said. “I know he did.”

Shuttlesworth’s death removes a civil rights giant who remained a potent advocate for the downtrodden and needy of all colors for decades after he helped blacks secure, if not absolutely equal rights, at least more balanced treatment in a country that grudgingly granted those advances.

Before Rosa Parks refused to give up a bus seat in Montgomery, before four little girls were killed by a bomb at their church in Birmingham, before “Bloody Sunday” in Selma and even before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a household name, there was Shuttlesworth.

Although not as well known as King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy— his compatriots in the civil rights movement’s “Big Three” — Shuttlesworth brought the struggle into the living rooms of white America through a series of combustible showdowns with the Ku Klux Klan, Southern segregationists and Birmingham’s infamous commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor.

“A guest at Bull’s house” — more commonly known as the Birmingham jail — on more than two dozen occasions, Shuttlesworth was viewed by King himself as the person who, because of his confrontational boldness and willingness to put himself in harm’s way, was likely to become the movement’s first major martyr.

“We’re determined to either kill segregation or be killed by it,” Shuttlesworth said in the 1961 CBS program. To achieve the goal, he nearly suffered the consequence, coming close to proving King’s premonition true through numerous narrow escapes from death during the civil rights movement’s most volatile and dangerous years.

He survived two bombings, one on Christmas Day 1956 when dynamite tossed from a passing car destroyed his parsonage beside Bethel Baptist Church, a small, narrow red-brick structure where he helped ignite “a fire you can’t put out” that forever changed life not just in Birmingham and Alabama, but America.

Nine months later, he was savagely beaten by a white mob armed with bicycle chains and baseball bats in September 1957 when he tried to enroll his daughters at segregated Phillips High School. His wife also was stabbed and his daughter Ruby had her ankle crushed in their car door in that horrific attack.

When a bloodied Shuttlesworth was rushed to the hospital, doctors marveled that no bones had been broken and that he had not even sustained a concussion. “The Lord knew I live in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head,” he said at the time.

His fiery personality and utter fearlessness were not diminished when Shuttlesworth moved to Cincinnati in 1961, lured by better pay and improved educational opportunities for his children. For much of the next half century, he essentially maintained dual residency, frequently returning to Alabama to help direct the epochal events unfolding there that were reshaping race relations nationwide.

Shuttlesworth was born Freddie Lee Robinson to Alberta Robinson, a 22-year-old unmarried woman in Mugler, Ala., on March 18, 1922. His father’s name was Vetter Greene. The couple had a second child — a girl named Cleola, Shuttlesworth’s only full-blooded sibling.

While growing up in a strictly segregated community, Shuttlesworth did not have many opportunities to interact with whites and had shown no interest in civil rights activism. But while working at Brookley, one of his black co-workers was threatened with a pay cut. Shuttlesworth protested, marking the beginning of his advocacy for equal treatment. Later, his quest for civil rights would become intertwined with his Gospel ministry.

By the early 1950s, Shuttlesworth was back in Birmingham, serving as pastor of Bethel Baptist and playing a more visible role in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Emboldened by desegregation of buses in Baton Rouge, La., in 1953 and the U.S. Supreme Court‘s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, he pressed his congregants register to vote, pushed the Birmingham City Council to hire more black police officers and traveled to Montgomery to support King’s year-long bus boycott.

But while King was becoming the movement’s national point man, historians and civil rights leaders agree that without Shuttlesworth, the movement’s history might have been far different.

When Alabama’s attorney general teamed up with a judge nicknamed “Injunctionitis Jones” to outlaw the NAACP in the state in 1956, Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights — an organization that, by directing the civil rights campaign in Alabama, significantly shaped the movement’s national agenda over the next eight years.

Shuttlesworth, King, Abernathy and Bayard Rustin formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta in 1957 to assist local organizations to work for equality for African-Americans. Shuttlesworth helped coin its non-violent motto: “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.”

In 1960, the Rev. L. Venchael Booth, pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati, invited Shuttlesworth to preach at the church. Booth later recommended Shuttlesworth to Revelation Baptist Church in Avondale, which needed a pastor. The congregation promptly elected him to the position, but he initially declined, prompting the congregation to step up its courtship.

With his wife, Ruby, also pressuring him to take the job because of the higher salary and better schools for their children, Shuttlesworth finally accepted the position on the condition that he could maintain his activism and involvement in Birmingham.

In both states, Shuttlesworth worked tirelessly to remove barriers that once made white workers’ employment floor blacks’ ceiling. During Shuttlesworth’s 80th birthday celebration in Birmingham, then-Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Small stressed that “no elected official of color in this city, this nation, would be where they are today” if not for him.

“Fred Shuttlesworth, this great Moses, taught us not to bow,” said the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods of Birmingham, who was with him during the vicious 1957 attack at Phillips High.

He was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at its 46th annual convention held in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2001 but he was replaced a year later.

Shuttlesworth’s final years were marked by declining health and intra-family squabbles that produced headlines in Cincinnati and Birmingham, where he returned to and has lived since 2008.

He and his first wife, Ruby, divorced in 1970 and she died of a heart attack the following year. In 2006, one year after having a brain tumor removed, he married, at age 84, a longtime friend, Sephira Bailey, then 49.

Since then, Shuttlesworth’s four children have occasionally clashed with their stepmother over her handling of his affairs.

When she moved Shuttlesworth back to Birmingham in 2008 for rehabilitation following a stroke that left him largely unable to speak, his children complained that they had been led to believe the move would be only a temporary one. There also were rifts over Sephira Shuttlesworth’s solicitation of public contributions for her husband’s medical care and burial spot, requests that the children felt damaged his image by inaccurately implying that he was destitute.

Those issues, however, will not undermine a brightly burning legacy beyond reproach. As Shuttlesworth himself said after surviving the Christmas 1956 bombing: “If God could save me from this, I’m here for the duration.”

And he was.

Source: USA Today


One Reply to “Civil Rights Icon Fred Shuttlesworth Dies”

  1. What a man and what a story. These are the sorts of personalities who are littered throughout our Black American history of whom the vast majority of us know absolutely nothing. I myself didn’t know anything about Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth before this. But I definitely will not forget him now that I know.

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