Remembering civil rights 'warrior' Shuttlesworth

theGRIO REPORT - Even in his later years, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, remained as active as his health would allow...

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Fred Shuttlesworth was one of the most courageous warriors,” Rev. Joseph E. Lowery told theGrio hours after the nation learned of Shuttlesworth’s passing at age 89.

Lowery’s observation echoed that of Dr. King who wrote in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait that Shuttlesworth “was one of the nation’s most courageous freedom fighters.”

theGrio: Civil rights icon Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth dead at 89

According to Lowery, “Fred’s courage and conviction and his sense of God’s calling him to task made him especially equipped to deal with Birmingham and Birmingham recognized this by naming its major airport (Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport) after him.”

Thirty-eight-year-old James “Jay” E. Roberson, who serves on the Birmingham City Council said, “It’s a sad time not only for the city of Birmingham but for this nation to lose an icon in the name of Fred Shuttlesworth.”

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A friend of Roberson’s family for many decades, Roberson grew up admiring Shuttlesworth. His grandfather served as an usher in Bethel Baptist Church, where Shuttlesworth pastored. To create a better Birmingham and world for him, his father and aunt frequently went to jail right along with Shuttlesworth. Roberson’s family passed down a powerful anecdote about the fiery Shuttlesworth’s commitment to nonviolence that continues to inspire him.

After one of the bombings of Big Bethel Baptist Church, across the street from the Roberson family home, in the 1950s, the congregation and neighborhood were enraged and wanted to go after those who had committed the heinous act but Shuttlesworth would not permit it.

Click here to view a Grio slideshow of civil rights hero Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

“We will not fight,” he said. “We will not get involved with violence. This is a peaceful movement and we’re going to move forward in peace and pray for those who have done wrong to us,” Roberson recalled being told frequently.

This year’s “100 Days of Nonviolence” campaign, which launches October 11 and ends on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Monday, January 16, was already dedicated to Birmingham’s stellar citizen before his passing. The press conference, in which Dr. King’s daughter Bernice King will participate, will be held on the steps of Phillips High School where Rev. Shuttlesworth was brutally beaten by a mob on September 17, 1957 as he tried to desegregate the school by enrolling his children.

Urged by his first wife, Ruby, who passed away in 1971, Shuttlesworth became the pastor of Revelation Baptist Church in Cincinnati in 1961 to get away from the dangers of Birmingham and to provide their four children with better educational opportunities. But that didn’t stop Shuttlesworth from traveling back to Birmingham and remaining active. He was a tireless general in the war against injustice.
When Alabama state officials banned the NAACP, of which he was a member, in 1956, Shuttlesworth helped create the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), which directed Alabama’s civil rights campaign and, in turn, helped set the nation’s civil rights agenda. He was a key asset to Dr. King in the early organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he helped King create in 1957.

It was Shuttlesworth who urged King and SCLC to come to Birmingham in 1963. The legendary Project C campaign, in which Birmingham’s youth played a pivotal role, set the stage for some of the movement’s most compelling showdowns. The activities there, of which Shuttlesworth was a critical strategist, made international headlines. Bull Connor even acknowledged Shuttlesworth as a nemesis.

When Connor learned of the chest injuries Shuttlesworth suffered as a resulted of the fire hoses he ordered, his response, according to a 1963 article in the New York Times, was “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”

Even in his later years, Shuttlesworth, remained as active as his health would allow. His second wife Sephira Shuttlesworth reportedly relocated him back to Birmingham in 2008 for rehabilitation following a stroke. In March 2007, then presidential candidate Barack Obama pushed Shuttlesworth’s wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate 1965’s notorious “Bloody Sunday,” the March 7 showdown which Shuttlesworth helped organized that is credited for the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“As one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” the statement from President Obama reads, “Reverend Shuttlesworth dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans. He was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. And today we stand on his shoulders, and the shoulders of all those who marched and sat and lifted their voices to help perfect our union.”

Shuttlesworth did not doubt the impact of the movement in Alabama and boasted of this in his president’s address, “Birmingham — A Little Closer to Freedom,” at the seventh anniversary of the ACMHR in 1963, which Andrew M. Manis captures in his 1999 biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

“How glorious it is to realize that the Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama, have not only helped to bring about a change in local government, but also a change in the attitude of the National Government about the racial situation.”

Rightfully, a statue of Fred Shuttlesworth sits outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and, upon learning of his death, the African-American mayor of Birmingham, William Bell, ordered that the flags at all city buildings be lowered to half-mast and remain as such until after Shuttlesworth’s funeral.

“We did the best we could and we will let history judge but I think it’s obvious that the struggle of the movement has made tremendous strides,” Rev. Lowery said, when asked if he considered his efforts and those of Rev. Shuttlesworth and many nameless others successful.

“We’ve come a long, long way,” he said, with sadness in his voice at the loss of yet another comrade the day before his 90th birthday.