While not as well known as Martin Luther King Jr., Fred L. Shuttlesworth was the Baptist pastor most responsible for the success of the civil rights movement in the Alabama city known as “Bombingham.” Fifty racially motivated bombings between 1947 and 1955 epitomized southern resistance to integration.
Shuttlesworth’s biographer, Andrew Manis, recognized the Birmingham minister as the “unsung hero” of the civil rights movement and a “prophet of social justice.” Shuttlesworth became an ordained Baptist minister in 1948 and was subsequently the pastor of several Baptist churches in Alabama and Ohio.
The Birmingham movement for civil rights was triggered in 1956 with the statewide ban of the NAACP, an organization known for its role in promoting school integration and fighting segregation.
Upset over the ban, Shuttlesworth proposed a meeting encouraging African-Americans to fight for their rights. At the meeting he and six other ministers founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
Shuttlesworth was named president and immediately emphasized the organization’s responsibility to help make the South “a place of equality and opportunity.” Under his leadership the ACMHR sponsored or prepared legal action against discrimination in public employment, segregation in facilities for interstate travel, bus segregation, school segregation and the general intimidation tactics used by the white establishment
Shuttlesworth suffered much physical abuse and narrowly escaped death for his leadership efforts. Hours before the ACMHR planned to integrate bus transportation, his home and church, Bethel Baptist Church, were bombed in the wee hours of Christmas Day 1956.
Shuttlesworth survived without a scratch and claimed that he heard an inner, inaudible voice tell him he had been saved to “lead the fight.” One church member commented, “If we had seen Christ walk on water, we could not have been more reverent than we were when we saw Reverend Shuttlesworth come out of that house alive.”
During his attempts to desegregate schools and the city’s parks, Shuttlesworth was put in jail numerous times for his acts of civil disobedience. In 1961, CBS television aired a documentary on Birmingham and referred to Shuttlesworth as “the man most feared by southern racists and the voice of the new militancy among Birmingham Negroes.” His followers were convinced he was a prophet for equality.
In early 1963, Shuttlesworth finally convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Birmingham. King’s campaign in Albany, Ga., had been less successful than civil-rights leaders hoped, but the involvement of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham transformed the entire national civil rights movement.
Shuttlesworth promised King: “I assure you, if you come to Birmingham, we will not only gain prestige but really shake the country. If you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.”
The demonstrations in Birmingham became known as Project C (confrontation). The police brutality of Bull Conner, the infamous civil official who used fire hoses and dogs to subdue the masses of young demonstrators, was broadcast nationwide. Shuttlesworth himself was thrown against a wall by the pressure of the fire hose and was briefly hospitalized with a bruised rib.
King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” soon followed, drawing further attention to the struggle. After the national stage moved from Birmingham, Shuttlesworth continued to push for civil rights. He remained president of the ACMHR until 1969.
Since the days of slavery, African-American preaching has been characterized by a richness of biblical imagery. Shuttlesworth preached, for example, of the similarities between ancient Babylon and Birmingham. He stated that Babylon thought more of her Swinging Gardens than the God of the Universe while “Birmingham prides her Zoo more highly than she values her Negroes.”
As the leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Shuttlesworth was the uncompromising confrontational prophet against the evils of segregation. Even some African-Americans questioned his style, but in the end, they admitted that he was a man of “raw courage” who instigated the “public acts that lit the fire in Birmingham.”
Baptists who attend the CBF General Assembly in Memphis on June 19 have an opportunity to see one of America’s great civil rights heroes. He is scheduled to receive the Courage Award of the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society Thursday morning at the Memphis/Cook County Convention Center.
Aaron Weaver is a graduate student at Baylor University. He blogs at the big daddy weave.