Thursday, October 6, 2011

Great Cincinnatians: Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth [1922 - 2011]

Dear George,

Yesterday Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died at age 89 in Birmingham, Alabama. Along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, he is regarded as one of the "big three" of the 1960's civil rights movement in the U.S. and has been an icon and elder statesman of the black freedom struggle to the present day. Shuttlesworth was brought up in rural Jefferson County near Birmingham by his tough-minded mother, Alberta Robinson Shuttlesworth Webb. The young Shuttlesworth was known for having a combative personality which he was to channel into the civil rights arena in adulthood. During World War II he worked as a truck driver at a Mobile air force base, then, following a calling to the ministry, he studied at Cedar Grove Bible College, Selma University, and Alabama State College. He and Ralph Abernathy became friends at Alabama State, exchanging advice about writing sermons. Graduating from Alabama State in 1952, he became the pastor of Selma's First Baptist Church. Reportedly because of personality clashes with deacons, he left that position in 1953 and became pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in north Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth soon became active in the voter registration efforts of the NAACP in Birmingham and supported the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. When the state of Alabama used the circuit court to ban the NAACP, Shuttlesworth and Ed Gardner founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) which became the major force spearheading civil rights activity in Birmingham for the next 8 years. Following the Montgomery bus boycott, Shuttlesworth attempted to desegregate the Birmingham Transit Company. Segregationists bombed his home, but Shuttlesworth survived despite 16 sticks of dynamite exploding three feet from his bed. The wall and the floor were blown out, but Shuttlesworth was protected by his mattress which flew into the air. A police officer who was also a member of the KKK told him, "If I were you I'd get out of town as quick as I could." However, his survival convinced him and his followers that God had intervened in order that he lead the fight against segregation. The next day Shuttlesworth led 250 people in a protest of segregation on Birmingham buses.

Paradoxically, Shuttleworth's early successes led to the political comeback of extremist segregationist Eugene T. "Bull" Connor who was selected commissioner of public safety in Birmingham. The two were central, polarized figures in a six-year period of "massive resistance" in the Deep South. Shuttleworth was jailed by Connor's police force more than two dozen times. His colleagues found his boldness and willingness to accept risk extraordinary. "We're determined to either kill segregation or be killed by it," Shuttlesworth told a television interviewer. According to the New York Times, Shuttlesworth was known by some of his activist peers as "the Wild Man from Birmingham."

In 1957 King, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and Bayard Rustin founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which became the most important civil rights organization in the South in the 60s. Shuttlesworth helped coin the SCLC's motto of non-violence: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.” He served as the organization's secretary for years. King and Abernathy were a sharp contrast. King came from a black middle class family in Atlanta and had a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston U. Shuttlesworth was the child of a poor black woman, and his ministerial degree was from an unaccredited black school. Whereas King was polished and conciliatory, Shuttlesworth was temperamental and favored confrontation over words. Few doubted his courage. In 1957 Shuttlesworth was badly beaten with bicycle chains and baseball bats and his wife was stabbed by a white mob when they tried to enroll two of their daughters in an all-white school. Connor used the fire and police departments to keep African Americans away from the ACMHR weekly meetings, and segregationists bombed the Bethel Baptist Church twice.

Beginning in 1958 Shuttlesworth put continual pressure on the more cautious, deliberate King to bring the SCLC to Birmingham to join in protests with the ACMHR. Shuttlesworth participated in sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in 1960 and participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961. One Freedom Ride leader stated, "Fred was practically a legend. I think it was important...for there to be somebody that really represented strength, and that's certainly what Fred did." By early 1963 King did agree to join forces, and the two organizations launched historic demonstrations in Birmingham which resulted in city businesses beginning to desegregate downtown department stores. Two weeks of nationally televised images of Bull Connor using police dogs to attack unarmed demonstrators dramatically affected Americans' view of the civil rights struggle. Shuttlesworth suffered chest injuries from the firehoses turned on him; Bull Connor said, "I'm sorry I missed it…I wish they'd carried him away in a hearse." Biographer Andrew M. Manis wrote that Rev. Shuttlesworth had "no equal in terms of courage and putting his life in the line of fire.” The Birmingham demonstrations were central in pressuring President John F. Kennedy to introduce the legislation in Congress which became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In introducing the bill, Kennedy said, "But for Birmingham, we would not be here today."

In 1960 Rev. L. Venchael Booth, pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati, invited Rev. Shuttlesworth as a guest preacher. Later he recommended Shuttlesworth to the Revelation Baptist Church in Avondale which was seeking a pastor. In 1961 Shuttlesworth accepted the position at the Revelation Baptist Church and moved to Cincinnati. For the next fifty years Shuttlesworth focused on civil rights issues in Cincinnati and Birmingham, seeking particularly to remove barriers to black's employment opportunities. He joined other black ministers in a campaign to make William Lovelace the first African American Municipal Court judge in Cincinnati. He pressed for greater minority hiring by the police department and changing procedures in city council elections to increase minority council members. In 1966 Shuttlesworth organized the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati's Avondale neighborhood, where he continued to seek opportunites to improve living conditions for the poor. In 1967 he tried to calm violent demonstrations in Cincinnati over issues of police brutality. In 1989 he established the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation which helps low-income families in Cincinnati purchase their first homes. Shuttlesworth served as the interim president of the SCLC in 2003 and 2004. He was an early signer of the Birmingham Pledge in 1998, a grassroots effort to combat racism and prejudice across the country.

The Greater Cincinnati Area Chamber of Commerce named Reverend Shuttlesworth a "Great Living Cincinnatian" in 2000. President Bill Clinton presented Shuttlesworth with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001. When honored by leaders of the civil rights movement in 2002, Shuttlesworth said, "I have seen us come so far, but we have so much farther to go." Shuttlesworth gave his last sermon at the Greater New Light Baptist Church on Mar. 19, 2006, following the removal of a non-cancerous brain tumour at age 84. In 2008 the city of Birmingham honored Shuttlesworth with a four-day tribute and renamed the local airport the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in his honor.

Shuttlesworth continued his pastoral ministries at the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati until 2006. He met Senator Barack Obama In Selma in 2007 at a commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, and Senator Obama pushed Shuttlesworth's wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where demonstrators had been tear-gassed on "Bloody Sunday" in March, 1965. Shuttlesworth moved back to Birmingham in 2008, following a stroke which left him largely unable to speak. Following his death, President Obama remarked, “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.” In looking back at all of this I’m struck, as many are, by Shuttlesworth’ great courage and his ability to act on his convictions in the face of overwhelming opposition. It’s rare to find individuals who produce lasting changes in the society as a whole. Fred Shuttlesworth was one of those remarkable figures.



SOURCES: ("Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth dies") ("Fred Lee Shuttlesworth") (“Shuttlesworth, an inspiration to MLK , dead at 89”) ("Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth")

www.local12,com (“Civil rights Activist Fred Shuttlesworth dies”) ("Fred Shuttlesworth")

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