BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the driving force behind the Birmingham integration efforts in the 1950s and early 1960s that energized the national civil rights movement, died this morning.
He was 89.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth, who was brutally beaten by a mob, sprayed with city fire hoses, arrested by police 35 times and also blown out of his bed by a Ku Klux Klan bomb during his struggle against segregation in Birmingham, said he never feared death.
“I tried to get killed in Birmingham and go home to God because I knew it would be better for you in Birmingham,” he once told an audience of students at Lawson State Community College.
He founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in 1956, when he began violating Birmingham’s bus segregation law.
He risked his life again and again — his house and his church were bombed; he was beaten by a mob — to pave the way for the civil rights.
“That Fred Shuttlesworth did not become a martyr was not for lack of trying,” said his biographer, Andrew Manis, author of A Fire You Can’t Put Out. “There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”
The Rev. Shuttlesworth is survived by his wife, Sephira Shuttlesworth, and his children, Patricia Shuttlesworth Massengill, Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester, Fred L. Shuttlesworth Jr., and Carolyn Shuttlesworth.
Bombing of Shuttlesworth’s house
The Rev. Shuttlesworth was pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville from 1953 to 1961, a period when he had persistent battles with Birmingham’s segregationist police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor.
The defining moment for the Rev. Shuttlesworth came during the 1956 Christmas night bombing that shattered the church and crumbled the parsonage next door. He walked out of the rubble almost unscathed, yet he recalled that the mattress he was sleeping on was completely blown to bits. “We didn’t find any pieces as large as my fists,” he said.
He believed it was a sign from God.
‘”Shuttlesworth was convinced that God saved him to lead the fight,” Manis said. It seemed to give him new energy and even more courage in his efforts to desegregate Birmingham’s buses and schools.
The day after the bombing, he and his supporters were back in the front seats of city buses, defying segregation laws. He was arrested for again riding in whites-only seats in 1958. Even his children were arrested in 1960 for violating bus segregation laws.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth did not have the smooth appeal that Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Martin Luther King Jr. did. The Rev. Shuttlesworth’s demeanor often rubbed people the wrong way. Unlike King, who earned a doctorate from Boston University and studied the latest trends in theology, the Rev. Shuttlesworth was truly a country preacher, rough around the edges, Manis said.
“For the most part he was theologically self-taught; he was conservative, almost a fundamentalist,” Manis said. “He was obsessed and had this fiery approach to whatever he was doing.”
His boldness in confronting city leaders and breaking laws he felt were unjust made him controversial, even to many in the black middle class. He once criticized black millionaire A.G. Gaston for making remarks about the disruptiveness of Shuttlesworth’s crusade.
[Read more: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, family relive
Relationship with King
The relationship between King and the Rev. Shuttlesworth was delicate as well. Manis recounts one time in which King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy were discussing views of Christ’s Resurrection and the Rev. Shuttlesworth took their comments as doubt about the historical truth of the Resurrection. The Rev. Shuttlesworth reacted so intensely to King’s suggestion that the disciples may have seen an apparition that King never seemed comfortable discussing theology with him again, Manis said.
Yet King knew how vital Shuttlesworth was to the movement. “They were not close friends; they were in a sense business associates,” Manis said. “He appreciated what Shuttlesworth was doing.”
But their differing backgrounds and approaches meant they would never be close friends, as King and Abernathy were. “That kept King at arm’s length from Shuttlesworth,” Manis said. “The movement took all kinds of people. They both understood their roles.”
The Rev. Shuttlesworth had begun pestering King as early as 1959 to focus national demonstrations on Birmingham, writing letters impatient and irritated in tone.
“Shuttlesworth helped the rest of the movement understand the way Birmingham was symbolically the strongest bastion of segregation in the South, with Bull Connor himself being the symbol of segregation,” Manis said. “That was clear to Shuttlesworth early on.”
It may have been clear to King too, but it wasn’t until the disappointment of King’s efforts in Albany, Ga., that he felt the timing was right for Birmingham in 1963. The success in Birmingham propelled King to even greater prominence.
When King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he invited a large entourage with him to accept the prize in Oslo, Norway. The Rev. Shuttlesworth wasn’t one of them, and he was deeply hurt. “You can make the argument King would not have won the prize without the success in Birmingham, and that would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by Shuttlesworth,” Manis said. “He was upset that he was not included in the entourage to Oslo. I don’t exactly blame him.”
The Rev. Shuttlesworth called King about the matter and King apologized, saying he hadn’t thought it through. But the Rev. Shuttlesworth was also not invited to a subsequent celebration of the prize in Atlanta. Manis writes that the Rev. Shuttlesworth held a residual anger toward King, and disagreed with King’s not keeping the pressure on in Birmingham. The Rev. Shuttlesworth continued to participate in national protests.
Move to Cincinnati
The Rev. Shuttlesworth went through infighting with the congregation at Revelation Baptist Church in Cincinnati, which caused a church split. He then helped found Greater New Light Baptist Church in 1966 with the help of supporters from the split. He had remained pastor of Greater New Light until his retirement in 2005.
Even after he moved to Ohio, the Rev. Shuttlesworth still seemed to spend much of his time in Birmingham. “I used to say I preached in Cincinnati and pastored in Birmingham,” he said.
Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham in 2008, living for awhile in a downtown apartment after undergoing therapy for a stroke he suffered in 2007. The Birmingham International Airport was named after him and he attended the premiere of a documentary highlighting his work at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where a statue of him stands outside.
He often reflected on the many confrontations in his life. “Confrontation is not bad,” he said. “Goodness is supposed to confront evil.”