Fred Shuttlesworth dies at 89; hard-charging civil rights figure
The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a blunt-talking preacher who braved beatings, bombings and fire-hosings to push Birmingham, Ala., to the forefront of the civil rights movement and advanced the historic fight with a confrontational strategy that often put him at odds with its most charismatic leader, died Wednesday. He was 89.
Shuttlesworth had been in poor health for the last year and was hospitalized with breathing problems three weeks ago at Birmingham’s Princeton Baptist Medical Center, where he died, said family spokeswoman Malena Cunningham.
He was the last of the civil rights movement’s “Big Three”; he, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
In 2004 he tried to revive the venerable civil rights group when it was beset by infighting and financial problems, but was ousted after several months as president when the board rejected his vision of greater activism.
“The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is the last of a kind,” Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader, said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Although not a household name, Shuttlesworth was as important to the movement as King was, said Diane McWhorter, whose chronicle of Birmingham at the height of the movement, “Carry Me Home,” won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
“Shuttlesworth and King were the two major axes of the SCLC part of the movement,” McWhorter said Wednesday. “Shuttlesworth was in the vanguard of direct action, pushing towards confrontation. King was the person who could really deal with white people and was more conciliatory. The two of them together formed a dialectic that drove the movement forward.”
By his own count, Shuttlesworth had been bombed twice, beaten into unconsciousness and jailed more than 35 times.
He saw himself as the nemesis of Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s racist police chief, who returned the animosity. After Connor’s men shot the reverend with a fire-hose gun during a melee, sending him to the hospital, Connor told a reporter, “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”
Born March 18, 1922, in Montgomery County, Ala., Shuttlesworth moved to Birmingham at age 3, where he lived with his mother, Alberta, and an authoritarian stepfather, William, who had worked in the coal mines until the ore dust ruined his health. Shuttlesworth’s combative nature may have developed in reaction to his stepfather, who was known to beat Shuttlesworth, his mother and eight younger siblings. The family grew crops on rented land to survive.
Shuttlesworth managed to attend high school in a better part of town. After graduating as class valedictorian, he worked odd jobs for a few years, including one as a truck driver on an Army Air Forces base in Mobile during World War II.
He joined the Baptist Church in 1944 and by 1947 was studying for the ministry at Selma University. By 1949 he was preaching at Selma’s First Baptist Church for $10 a week.
In 1953 he took over as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham. He was called to a life of social activism the following year, when he was riveted by a newspaper headline on May 17, 1954, announcing that the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education. “I felt like I was a man, that I had rights,” Shuttlesworth said, recalling his reaction in a 2004 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
He became an activist in Birmingham, calling for the hiring of African American police officers and joining the voter registration efforts of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. He also supported the Montgomery bus boycott, led by King, in 1955.
When the state of Alabama essentially outlawed the NAACP in 1956, Shuttlesworth, who had been frustrated with that group’s internal politics, started the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to take direct action to end racial segregation. “This deed first singled him out as the preacher courageous enough or crazy enough to defy Bull Connor,” historian Taylor Branch wrote in his chronicle of the movement’s early years.
On Christmas night in 1956 Shuttlesworth was laying plans to lead a group into the white sections of buses when about 15 sticks of dynamite exploded outside the parsonage. The blast destroyed his humble quarters but he emerged unscathed from the wreckage. The next day he led 200 people onto Birmingham’s buses.
In 1957, he took two of his daughters to enroll in an all-white high school in Birmingham. More than a dozen men with chains, brass knuckles and baseball bats were waiting for him when he drove up. One of the men stabbed his wife, Ruby, in the hip. Shuttlesworth was beaten until he passed out, but he regained consciousness and managed to clamber back into the car, calmly telling the driver not to break any traffic laws as they rushed away.
That year he joined with King and Abernathy to launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became the guiding force of the movement.
Shuttlesworth constantly prodded King to take more aggressive action. “King’s attention was pulled in a lot of different directions,” McWhorter said. “His public appearances were crucial to raising money for the movement. Shuttlesworth was always trying to bring him back into the work and get him focused on the real campaign.”
In 1963 their collaboration culminated in massive demonstrations in Birmingham to pressure downtown department stores to desegregate. Later that year when President Kennedy introduced to Congress the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told King and Shuttlesworth, “But for Birmingham, we would not be here today.”
Shuttlesworth often said that he “tried to get killed in Birmingham” to draw attention to the injustices. His rough-edged approach alienated many of the more bourgeois elements of the movement, but he made no apologies. God, he said after the explosion that nearly took his life, “made me bomb-proof” and blew him into history.
His first wife died in 1971. He is survived by his second wife, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, five children, 14 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren, a great-great grandchild, five sisters and two brothers.
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