Friday, October 28, 2011
Tribute: Civil Rights Trail Blazer Rev. Fred Shuttesworth
The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, left, with Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963.
The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth
Civil Rights Leader who survived beatings and bombings in Alabama a half-century ago as he fought against racial injustice alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. He was 89.
He died at Princeton Baptist Medical Center, his wife, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, said. He also lived in Birmingham.
It was in that city in the spring of 1963 that Mr. Shuttlesworth, an important ally of Dr. King, organized two tumultuous weeks of daily demonstrations by black children, students, clergymen and others against a rigidly segregated society.
Graphic scenes of helmeted police officers and firefighters under the direction of T. Eugene (Bull) Connor, Birmingham’s intransigent public safety commissioner, scattering peaceful marchers with fire hoses, police dogs and nightsticks, provoked a national outcry.
The brutality helped galvanize the nation’s conscience, as did the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of a black church in Birmingham that summer, which killed four girls at Sunday school. Those events led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after the historic Alabama marches that year from Selma to Montgomery, which Mr. Shuttlesworth also helped organize. The laws were the bedrock of civil rights legislation.
“Without Fred Shuttlesworth laying the groundwork, those demonstrations in Birmingham would not have been as successful,” said Andrew M. Manis, author of “A Fire You Can’t Put Out,” a biography of Mr. Shuttlesworth. “Birmingham led to Selma, and those two became the basis of the civil rights struggle.”
Mr. Shuttlesworth, he added, had “no equal in terms of courage and putting his life in the line of fire” to battle segregation.
Mr. Shuttlesworth joined with Dr. King in 1957 as one of the four founding ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the engine of Dr. King’s effort to unify the black clergy and their flocks to combat Jim Crow laws. At the time, Mr. Shuttlesworth was leader of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which he had helped form in 1956 to replace the Alabama offices of the N.A.A.C.P., shut down for years by court injunction.
Outside their roles as men of the cloth and civil rights advocates, however, Mr. Shuttlesworth and Dr. King stood in sharp contrast to each other in terms of background, personality and strategies.
Dr. King was a polished product of Atlanta’s black middle class. A graduate of Morehouse College, he held a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University. Fred Shuttlesworth was a child of poor black Alabama whose ministerial degree was from an unaccredited black school. (He later earned a master’s degree in education from Alabama State College.)
Where Dr. King could deliver thunderous oratory and move audiences by his reasoned convictions and faith, Mr. Shuttlesworth was fiery, whether preaching in the pulpit or standing up to Bull Connor, who dueled with him for years in street protests and boycotts leading up to their historic 1963 showdown.
Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 book about the struggle in Birmingham, wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Shuttlesworth was known among some civil rights activists as “the Wild Man from Birmingham.”
“Among the youthful ‘elders’ of the movement,” she added, “he was Martin Luther King’s most effective and insistent foil: blunt where King was soothing, driven where King was leisurely, and most important, confrontational where King was conciliatory — meaning, critically, that he was more upsetting than King in the eyes of the white public.”
Mr. Shuttlesworth was temperamental, even obstinate, and championed action and confrontation over words. He could antagonize segregationists and allies alike, quarreling with his allies behind closed doors.
But few doubted his courage. In the years before 1963 he was arrested time and again — 30 to 40 times by his count — on charges aimed at impeding peaceful protests. He was repeatedly jailed and twice the target of bombs.
In one instance, on Christmas night 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. “The wall and the floor were blown out,” Ms. McWhorter wrote, “and the mattress heaved into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet.”
When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”
Freddie Lee Robinson was born on March 18, 1922, in rural Mount Meigs, Ala. He took the surname Shuttlesworth from a man his mother, Alberta Robinson, later married. He had eight siblings, and the family supplemented its income by sharecropping and making moonshine liquor, an activity for which Mr. Shuttlesworth was sentenced to two years’ probation in 1940.
He was a truck driver in the early 1940s but was soon drawn to pulpits in Selma and Birmingham. He became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953 and joined the Alabama chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. before it was outlawed from the state in 1956. He and others established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to carry on the chapter’s work and came to challenge the white power structure on many fronts.
In 1963 he welcomed Dr. King to Birmingham to take part in the protests. They planned a boycott of white merchants coupled with large marches that they expected would provoke overreaction by city officials and show the world the depth of white resistance.
“We wanted confrontation, nonviolent confrontation, to see if it would work,” Mr. Shuttlesworth later said. “Not just for Birmingham — for the nation. We were trying to launch a systematic, wholehearted battle against segregation, which would set the pace for the nation.”
Mr. Shuttlesworth suffered chest injuries when the pummeling spray of fire hoses was turned on him. “I’m sorry I missed it,” Mr. Connor said when told of the injuries, The New York Times reported in 1963. “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”
After 1965, with the new civil rights legislation on the books and Dr. King turning his attention to poverty and black problems in the urban North, Mr. Shuttlesworth remained focused on local issues in Birmingham and Cincinnati, where he had moved to take the pulpit of a black church. He traveled frequently between Ohio and Alabama before returning permanently to Birmingham in 2008 for treatment after suffering a stroke the previous year.
Besides his wife, Mr. Shuttlesworth is survived by four daughters, Patricia Massengill, Ruby “Ricky” Bester, Carolyn Shuttlesworth and Maria Murdock; a son, Fred Jr.; a stepdaughter, Audrey Wilson; five sisters, Betty Williams, Truzella Brazil, Ernestine Grimes, Iwilder Reid and Eula Mitchell; 14 grandchildren; 20 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.
With the death of Dr. King, and later Dr. King’s chief aide, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Mr. Shuttlesworth eventually assumed the role of elder statesman in the civil rights movement. In 2004 he was named president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but he stepped down the same year, complaining that “deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organization.”
He also came under criticism by gay rights advocates in 2004 when he lent his name to a campaign in Cincinnati to stop the city from passing a gay rights ordinance.
He remained an honored figure in Birmingham, however. In 2008, the city renamed its principal airport Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
In 2009, in a wheelchair, he was front and center among other dignitaries in an audience of about 6,000 at the city’s Boutwell Auditorium to watch a live broadcast as the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was sworn in.
He had encountered Mr. Obama, then a senator from Illinois, two years earlier, along with former President Bill Clinton, during a commemoration in Selma of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches. As a crowd crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where demonstrators were beaten and tear-gassed on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, Mr. Obama pushed Mr. Shuttlesworth’s wheelchair.