Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth was bombed twice and imprisoned more than 35 times during his lifetime, in addition to being beaten unconscious for seeking to enroll his kids in an all-white school. Before his death in October 2011, the American preacher and civil rights leader was the last of the civil rights movement’s “Big Three.” In 1957, Shuttlesworth, along with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization.
He may not be well-known, but historians say he was just as vital to the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King.
Despite threats to his and his family’s lives in Birmingham, America’s most segregated city, Shuttlesworth dedicated his life to fighting injustice, despite the fact that some civil rights leaders, including King, were uncomfortable with his confrontational tactics.
Shuttlesworth’s “aggressive” style may have emerged as a result of his upbringing, according to history. Shuttlesworth was born on March 18, 1922, in Montgomery County, Alabama, and moved to Birmingham with his mother, Alberta, and a stepfather, William, when he was three years old to live with his mother and eight younger siblings. To make ends meet, Shuttlesworth and his family cultivated on rented land.
Shuttlesworth would graduate with honors from high school before doing odd jobs, including a stint as a truck driver on an Army Air Forces post. He became a member of the Baptist Church in 1944. Three years later, he enrolled at Selma University to study for the ministry. He began preaching at Selma’s First Baptist Church in 1949 before becoming pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church in 1953.
The revelation in 1954 that the United States Supreme Court had overturned school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education propelled him into social engagement.
In a 2004 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Shuttlesworth described his reaction: “I felt like I was a man, that I had rights.”
Shuttlesworth became an activist in Birmingham, joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) voter registration drives and advocating for the hiring of African-American police officers. In 1955, he was also a strong supporter of the Montgomery bus boycott. When the NAACP was outlawed in Alabama in 1956, Shuttlesworth, who had difficulties with the group’s internal politics, founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).
The United States Supreme Court determined in December of that year that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, was unconstitutional. Following that, Shuttlesworth announced that his ACMHR will put segregation laws to the test in Birmingham. He claimed that his intention was to overcrowd city buses with African-Americans. His house, however, was blown up by sixteen sticks of Ku Klux Klan dynamite on Christmas night, 12 hours before he could carry out his plan. His house was completely damaged by the explosion. Shuttlesworth, who had landed in the basement, escaped the wreckage unharmed. He told the gathered neighbors, Klan members, and police officers that God had saved him.
One of the officers he knew was a Klan member advised him to leave town right once. “Reverend, I didn’t imagine they’d go this far. I’ll tell you what I’d do in your situation. “I’d get out of town as soon as possible,” the cop advised.
“Officer, you are not me,” Shuttlesworth replied. Return to your Klan comrades and tell them that if the Lord can save me through this, I will stay for the duration. The battle has only just begun.”
Shuttlesworth declared in 1957, a few months after surviving the bombing, that he would enroll his kids in an all-white school. This occurred in September, the month in which the Little Rock Nine made national news in the United States.
Shuttlesworth walked Ricky and Pat toward the all-white school, where he was beaten senseless.
When he arrived, more than a dozen men with chains, brass knuckles, and baseball bats awaited him, according to the Los Angeles Times. “One of the men stabbed Ruby, his wife, in the hip with a knife. Shuttlesworth was thrashed until he passed out, but he awoke and climbed back into the car, calmly instructing the driver not to breach any traffic laws as they sped away.”
Ruby Shuttlesworth shattered her ankle after a car door slammed shut on her leg. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in the same year by Shuttlesworth, King, and Abernathy. He would also assist in the organization of the Freedom Rides while leading several anti-segregation demonstrations in Birmingham. He was hospitalized after being struck by racist police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor’s water cannons during one of these rallies in 1963.
Despite several physical assaults, Shuttlesworth remained unwavering in his struggle against injustice. His objective was to “either kill or be killed by segregation.”
He was a key organizer of the historic 1965 march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and in the 1980s, he founded the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation in Cincinnati to provide low-income housing.
Shuttlesworth earned the Presidential Citizens Medal, the country’s second-highest citizen honour, from US President Bill Clinton in 2001, just before his death in October 2011.
After Shuttlesworth’s death, civil rights activist John Lewis observed, “The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is the last of a kind.” “When others had the confidence to stand up, speak up, and speak out, Fred Shuttlesworth risked everything to bring segregation to an end in Birmingham and Alabama.”