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Fred Shuttlesworth and Racial Justice: An Old Perspective for a New Millennium

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday affords Americans a built-in opportunity to revisit the issue of racial justice. It is also a window through which we may re-view the lives of others who, like King, pushed America toward becoming a “beloved community” of racial justice.

If our other patriotic holidays memorialize those who have fought to defend American freedom on foreign shores, it is fitting that this holiday celebrates King and other old soldiers of the civil rights movement who fought to extend freedom on our own streets. No old soldier can surpass the record of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, sparkplug of the Birmingham freedom struggle.

Probably the movement’s most unsung hero, Shuttlesworth pastored Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church and founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). This organization was independent of but affiliated with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The two leaders joined forces on many occasions, but especially in the historic protests of 1963. These efforts gave America its most vivid images of the black freedom struggle—the infamous dogs and fire hoses—and contributed directly to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended segregation in public accommodations.

The Birmingham campaign also was a major foundation of the Selma campaign, which led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Shuttlesworth’s work in Birmingham from 1953 to 1963 thus made possible the two high-water marks of the movement.

Shuttlesworth fought segregation in the most dangerous battlefield of the entire black struggle—the city of “Bombingham,” Ala.

There he faced perhaps the movement’s most implacable foe in Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. An “inside agitator” in a city dominated by Connor’s Klan-influenced police department, Shuttlesworth deliberately put himself and his family in the “Bull’s” eye and by his own testimony “tried to get killed in Birmingham.”

He and his followers believed himself to have been miraculously saved from harm in the bombing of his home on Christmas night 1956. Two other bombings of his church, one planned by Connor and associates, left him unscathed. In 1957 he was beaten by a mob when he tried to enroll his daughters in an all-white high school.

During the 1963 demonstrations, when not a drop of water from Connor’s fire hoses fell on King or Ralph Abernathy, Shuttlesworth was slammed by the hoses into the side of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and bruised a rib. He was jailed over 30 times and cases involving him, either as a defendant or a plaintiff, have reached the U.S. Supreme Court more than any other person in American history. For these reasons, his courage is legendary among movement participants.

Shuttlesworth and King differed in many ways. Where King hailed from a middle-class, urban background, Shuttlesworth grew up in a rural, working class home. Where King was educated in elite schools in both the South and North, Shuttlesworth was educated in the all-black setting of the struggling Selma University. Where King’s preaching was polished and erudite, Shuttlesworth was a product of the black folk pulpit, much more inclined to the emotional climax known as the “whoop.” Where King was a theological liberal, Shuttlesworth was almost a fundamentalist. Where King’s social activism was deliberate and philosophical, Shuttlesworth’s was precipitous and militant.

Shuttlesworth was impatient for action in Birmingham. For five years leading up to the pivotal 1963 protests, Shuttlesworth pestered King and SCLC to join forces with him for a massive direct action campaign.

Often he belittled King’s “flowery speeches” as covering over a lack of action. And in 1963, when King sought to end protests before wringing meaningful promises from Birmingham’s leaders, Shuttlesworth bitterly criticized King for not following through with his original agreement.

One other significant difference divided them. Where King only pastored part-time after 1958, Shuttlesworth has been a pastor all his adult life.

This pastoral ministry, along with his basic conservatism, helped him develop a perspective that enlightens the ongoing struggle for racial justice in this new millennium. King and Shuttlesworth both addressed the need for government to own up to its responsibility to assure racial justice. But as a local pastor Shuttlesworth, much more than King, called upon individuals in his churches to clean up their own houses so as not to play into the prejudices of white racists.

In recent years, American race relations have seen both sides talk past each other. “Compassionate Conservatives,” influenced by the Reagan Revolution, reject answers from “big government” and trumpet the solution of individual responsibility.

Similarly the “civil rights establishment” continues to call on government to address problems of racial equality, but is often criticized as mired in victimology and excuse-making.

Shuttlesworth’s old perspective is still an important answer for contemporary America. His prophetic challenge to white America and the government that reflects its interests has always been to overcome its prejudices and lead the efforts toward racial equality and justice. His priestly message to his own community has hammered the theme of individual responsibility.

Both elements of Shuttlesworth’s message are healthy and holistic responses to the continuing challenge of racial justice in the new millennium.

Andrew M. Manis is assistant professor of history at Macon State College. He holds a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has received several prestigious fellowships for his research. He won the 2000 Lillian Smith Book Award for his biography of Fred Shuttlesworth, “A Fire You Can’t Put Out.”

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