Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Leader, Dies At 89
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — At one end of the fire hose were officers deployed by Bull Connor, the notoriously racist police commissioner fond of telling his men to use sticks, dogs and whatever else was necessary to scatter peaceful black protesters.
At the business end was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Birmingham, Ala., preacher who – as much or more than any of his contemporaries, the leaders of the civil rights movement – had a penchant for putting himself in harm’s way in the name of equality.
Shuttlesworth, who survived bombings, beatings and that 1963 encounter with the fire hose that left him with chest injuries, died Wednesday at 89 at Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, relatives and hospital officials said, half a century after his repeated refusals to back down to Connor and the Ku Klux Klan helped even the fight for civil rights in the South and beyond.
“When God made Bull Connor, one of the real negative forces in this country, He was sure to make Fred Shuttlesworth,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a fellow pioneer in the movement.
Shuttlesworth, a truck driver turned Baptist minister, never gained the kind of fame outside his native Alabama bestowed on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries. But without him, King might not have sent his forces to Birmingham when he did.
“Fred didn’t invite us to come to Birmingham,” said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who served as an aide to King. “He told us we had to come.”
Shuttlesworth became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953 and soon began openly challenging segregation despite repeated arrests and attempts on his life.
On Christmas night 1956, 16 sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his bedroom as he slept at the Bethel Baptist parsonage, eleven months after a similar attack at King’s home in Montgomery, Ala. No one was injured in either bombing, although shards of glass and wood pierced Shuttleworth’s coat and hat left hanging on a hook.
The next day, Shuttlesworth led 250 people in a protest of segregation on buses. In 1957, he was beaten by a mob when he tried to enroll two of his children in an all-white school.
“My church was a beehive,” Shuttlesworth, who stayed active in Birmingham even after moving to a church in Cincinnati in 1961, once said.
“I made the movement. I made the challenge. Birmingham was the citadel of segregation, and the people wanted to march.”
Admirers from King to President Barack Obama hailed Shuttlesworth’s courage and determination over the years, qualities commonly attributed to the champions of the movement. But it was Shuttlesworth’s sheer fearlessness that persuaded King to take the struggle to Birmingham, Young said.
“He marched into the jaws of death every day in Birmingham before we got there,” Young said.
Alabama’s first black federal judge, U.W. Clemon, said Shuttlesworth flung himself at injustice well knowing he could be killed at any moment.
“He was the first black man I knew who was totally unafraid of white folks,” said Clemon, who is now in private practice.
In galvanizing his followers for another one-sided confrontation with the authorities, Shuttlesworth would say, “We’re telling ol’ Bull Connor right here tonight that we’re on the march and we’re not going to stop marching until we get our rights.”
Televised scenes of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on black marchers, including children, in the spring of 1963 helped the rest of the nation grasp the depth of racial animosity in the Deep South. That fact wasn’t lost on Connor, who died a decade later.
In a May 1963 New York Times story, Connor responded to the news that Shuttlesworth had been injured by the spray of fire hoses by saying: “I’m sorry I missed it. … I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”
In Cincinnati, Shuttlesworth left Revelation Baptist Church and became pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church in 1966.
For about three months in 2004, he was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he had helped found alongside King. The troubled organization’s board had suspended Shuttlesworth without giving a reason after he tried to fire a longtime official. He resigned, saying board members tried to micromanage the organization.
He was 84 when he retired as the pastor of Greater New Light in 2006. “The best thing we can do is be a servant of God,” he said in his final sermon. “It does good to stand up and serve others.”
Shuttlesworth moved back to Birmingham in February 2008 for rehabilitation after a mild stroke. That summer, the city once known as “Bombingham” honored him with a four-day tribute and named its airport after him. His statue also stands outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
That November, he watched from a hospital bed as Obama was elected the nation’s first African-American president. The year before, Obama had pushed Shuttlesworth’s wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during a commemoration of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march – a moment Obama recalled Wednesday in lauding Shuttlesworth as a “testament to the strength of the human spirit” and saying America owes him a “debt of gratitude.”
Birmingham Mayor William Bell ordered city flags lowered to half-staff until after Shuttleworth’s funeral, and Gov. Robert Bentley issued a similar decree statewide, honoring a man whose activism landed him behind bars dozens of times.
“I went to jail 30 or 40 times, not for fighting or stealing or drugs,” Shuttlesworth told grade school students in 1997. “I went to jail for a good thing, trying to make a difference.”