Civil Rights’ Roughneck Preacher, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (1922-2011)

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the “big three” of the Civil Rights movement, and a towering, courageous figure who went toe to toe with Bull Connor, the KKK and the worst of the racist figures of Birmingham, Alabama, died this week at the age of 89.

Shuttlesworth was called the cussing preacher, but his fiery preaching and willingness to put his body on the line countless times made him the warrior of the Civil Rights movement. In A Fire you Can’t Put out, The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, author Andrew Manis said of him: “I believe Shuttlesworth personified a significant essence of African American spirituality and the black way of being Christian.”

Most of the remembrances about Shuttlesworth highlight his relationship to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his work in Birmingham, and the non-invitation to King’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1964. But Shuttlesworth should also be remembered for being the one, in a time of non-violent protest, to give up his body regularly to violence. He survived a house bombing in 1956; a beating with bike chains by the KKK in 1957 when he tried to enroll his children in a white school; and being beaten into unconsciousness—two times. He was arrested 30 to 40 times by his own account, but who can count when you’ve been hosed down, beaten, and wished dead by Bull Connor. Still, Shuttlesworth kept on keeping on.

Many do not realize that Shuttlesworth’s leadership of the Birmingham movement was done “on the road.” He moved his family in 1961 to Cincinnati to take a pastorate, but kept returning to Birmingham to lead the marches and sit in there. Shuttlesworth’s organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to push a direct action campaign against segregation in Birmingham, which included store boycotts during the Easter season. It was during this campaign that MLK was jailed and wrote his famous “Letter to Birmingham Jail” in April of 1963.

Many remember MLK’s letter, but it was Shuttlesworth who, hit with the full force of a fire hose, led children on a march in downtown Birmingham during the Children’s Crusade in May, 1963—that was a real badge of courage. While recovering in the hospital, store owners sought a moratorium on street protests, and King along with some other local leaders told the store owners and governmental officials that he would accept the compromise and stop the demonstrations.

Shuttlesworth wasn’t having it. He said “Go ahead and call it off.… When I see it on TV, that you have called it off, I will get up out of this, my sickbed, with what little ounce of strength I have, and lead them back into the street. And your name’ll be Mud.” Strong, assertive, and no nonsense, Shuttlesworth represented the tightly coiled spring of the Civil Rights movement: Everyone knew Shuttlesworth would have to be beat down hard to get him to turn around.

Compromise was reached, and Shuttlesworth stood with King and Ralph Abernathy to read the prepared statement. Despite the compromise, white segregationists would go on to bomb several places, including the home of King’s Brother Daniel, and a few months later in September of 1963, Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist church would be bombed, killing four little girls.

Shuttlesworth, despite all the beatings and ridicule was a survivor, and would go on to live through the murder of MLK and the death and betrayal of MLK by Ralph Abernathy—not to mention divorce and re-marriage. Along the way, he caused a church split or two. You could say he was a restless man. There was no doubting, however, that he was tough, determined, and sold out to the cause. 

As a historian, I actually like the no-nonsense, roughneck preacher more than MLK. He didn’t have an easy life. He was a truck driver who went to college at night and was once arrested for making moonshine. His parents fought. Shuttlesworth wasn’t afraid to get down, and get in it. I mean that in the best way possible. Shuttlesworth was “a man without guile”; he called it as it was, and had no problem letting you know about it.  

I had the opportunity to hear Rev. Shuttlesworth preach while studying at Vanderbilt at a local church, where my dissertation advisor Prof. Lewis Baldwin introduced him to the congregation. I don’t remember much about the sermon, but meeting him afterwards, his demeanor and personality made me think that he was the kind of man you’d want to have not only for spiritual advice, but to get you through a back alley bar fight as well. Yet he was also pleasant, and a great storyteller. Shuttlesworth did not shy away from living that hard history of racism over and over again in order to remind others of just how far the nation had come.

Shuttlesworth’s life and Christian witness was a certain kind of spirituality: a rough-hewn, hard diamond forged in the fires of racial hatred. He kept a sense of righteousness about him that may have destroyed personal relationships, while holding on to what was right and true. He was a soldier in the army of the Lord and his wasn’t a weak, wimpy faith, but a fiery righteousness that seared all untruths in its path. I can only hope that those who protest for justice today, whether at Occupy Wall Street, Syria, Yemen, or any other place, take on the spirit and strength of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.