Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Civil rights leader remembered in Birmingham

Fifty years ago, a battle was raging in the heart of Birmingham, Ala. For decades, institutional racism had reigned supreme across the southern United States. But in the early 1960s, when President Kennedy took office with the promise of broad social change, some of those institutions began to fall. The white population of Birmingham and the police force, under the reign of Eugene “Bull” Connor, stood against the tide and fought to preserve the old, racist way of life.

It was a time of fear, uncertainty and marginalization for black people in Birmingham. According to noted civil activist Odessa Woolfolk, Birmingham was known as the Johannesburg of the American South. In 1956, there was only one black high school in the city.

Segregation, assault and even bombings, which happened so regularly that Birmingham earned the nickname “Bombingham,” were facts of life. The Ku Klux Klan operated with impunity and “sundown towns,” so called because blacks had to “get out of town before sundown” or face mortal danger, were common across Alabama.

In the midst of all this violence, a young reverend named Fred Shuttlesworth, operating out of Bethel Baptist Church, organized a movement for civil rights in Birmingham that would eventually secure freedom and equality for black citizens across America.

Earlier this month, on Oct. 5, 2011, the Rev. Shuttlesworth passed away at the age of 89. Last weekend, dozens of America’s living civil rights leaders and politicians, both black and white, gathered from across the state and country to honor the Rev. Shuttleworth’s life and accomplishments.

As Odessa Woolfolk said, “Each of us has a different relationship to Reverend Shuttlesworth and each of us has a different relationship to Birmingham.”

Of the dozens of stories told about the Rev. Shuttlesworth over the weekend, the common threads were that he was a preternaturally courageous man, positive to a fault and utterly committed to non-violence.

The Rev. Shuttleworth’s involvement in the civil rights movement began in earnest when he became pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in 1953. Bethel became a launching pad for the civil rights movement in Birmingham.

On Dec. 25, 1956, the day before a planned demonstration against Birmingham’s segregated bus system, Shuttlesworth’s home was bombed for what would be the first of three times. Despite the hole blown in the floor of his home, Shuttlesworth was unharmed and went through with the demonstration as planned the next day.    Shuttlesworth would go on to co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders in 1957.

Later that year, Shuttlesworth was beaten by an angry mob when he tried to enroll his children in the all-white Phillips High School. Once again, Shuttlesworth survived with non-life threatening injuries.

Time and time again, Shuttlesworth narrowly avoided death. According to Diane McWhorter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” the two things that seem to characterize Shuttleworth’s career are his position in the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr. and his Road Runner-esque avoidance of death. In the words of the Rev. Calvin Woods, brother of the Rev. Abraham Woods, Jr., “Fred was anointed and appointed by God.”

The first idea, however, turns out to be more of an illusion than a fact. In 1963, Shuttlesworth finally persuaded Martin Luther King Jr. and other SCLC ministers to come to Birmingham to participate in a series of protests. These protests built momentum for the movement across the South and eventually led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1965 Voting Right Act.

The outpouring of love and affection for the Rev. Shuttlesworth was enormous. Even former Detective Dan Jordan, who arrested Shuttlesworth in the 1960s, said, “I can’t think of a better person that I could ever arrest.”

“He was a leader of inspiring courage and rare compassion,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Without him, there would be no me.”

“Reverend Shuttlesworth’s life was a testament to the strength of the human spirit,” said President Barrack Obama in a letter read by Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

The Rev. Shuttlesworth leaves behind a legacy of fighting for human rights at a difficult time. In his speech at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Rabbi Jonathan Miller discussed how being righteous in a peaceful generation is no great feat, but to be righteous in a dangerous time takes an extraordinary man.

“Doctor Shuttlesworth was righteous in his generation,” he said.

More to Discover