I first met the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church during the 30-year anniversary of the church bombing, when NBC’s Brian Williams (before he was an anchor) and his television crews broadcast a live, national town-hall meeting from its sanctuary.
I was one of The Birmingham News reporters covering the event, and I was directed to interview him. At that time I only knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in terms of the Civil Rights Movement. So Rev. Shuttlesworth’s story fascinated me.
He recounted surviving the first bomb attack on his home. A blast that should have killed him instead inspired him because he knew that God spared him to lead the Movement in Birmingham. Emerging from the ruins of his wrecked home virtually unscathed, he was from then on the fiercest foe of segregation, he said, because he was never again afraid.
“I was going to kill segregation, or segregation was going to kill me,” he said, the first time I heard his famous phrase. He laughed as he compared poor ol’ Bull Connor’s stubborn refusal to give up segregation and white supremist bigotry to the Bible’s Egyptian Pharaoh. In history’s book, they were powerful antagonists whose spectacular come-uppance played into the hands of a larger narrative, where oppressed people finally gained their freedom. In the end, both looked like fools, and God got the glory.
Rev. Shuttlesworth was absolutely convinced that the power of love and non-violence would win out over Bull Connor’s hatred and violence. He was committed to wiping segregation laws off the books and curing America’s soul from the “cancer” of racism.
Listening to him literally gave me chill bumps, and, looking back, I believe it lit a fire in me too.
In the years since that first meeting, I’ve learned more about Rev. Shuttlesworth, especially since I’ve been working on the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail. And now I’m beginning to understand the power that transfigured this man from a simple pastor into the fiery “Lion of Birmingham,” as he’s been called.
Rev. Shuttlesworth was willing to die to end segregation and generations of racial injustice, as were his followers in Birmingham and people of like minds across the nation. Their cause was just. This is why the stories of Birmingham, of the Freedom Riders and others who took part in the Movement resonate in the souls of folks worldwide.
The soul yearns to be free, and live the best life it can possibly live. This is why, ostensibly, people come to the United States. No one wants to be oppressed or have their human rights arbitrarily trounced. But this was the condition of Black folk that Rev. Shuttlesworth faced 50 years ago when he fought to end segregation:
The Negro only asks for what America means; Democracy means integration . . . Integration is the right to work and be economically secure; the right to political participation, and the opportunities with all the others to participate in and improve upon the social activities and standards in the community …
America means integration: else strike from the flag its colors of red, white and blue. America means integration, else take out of the Declaration of Independence the words, “All men are created equal . . . and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Generals, lieutenants and foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement forced America to live up to its own stated ideals. During the Cold War era when Rev. Shuttlesworth preached, it was hypocritical of U.S. leaders to self-righteously preach to other countries about granting citizens their right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” while allowing others to oppress the rights of people within their own borders based on skin pigmentation.
Rev. Shuttlesworth once preached, “Can America forever give the bread of Charity to Hungarians, Jews, Europeans and other oppressed people throughout the world, and throw bombs at her own Negroes? Is the great American ideal of fair play, equality and justice . . . to fall or fade from view when challenging the internal enemy of Segregation?”
And if it was hypocritical then, it is now.
Stories like Rev. Shuttlesworth’s and other foot soldiers in Movement history give oppressed people hope that they too can overcome incredible odds against their human dignity.
Today’s injustices and the antagonists who perpetrate them maybe aren’t as clear to see as was Hitler or Bull Connor (though, sadly, to some folks, they are still heroes). Are they Wall Street bankers? Mexican drug lords? Ghetto thugs? Totalitarian dictators or warlords? Pedophiles in positions of authority? Greedy corporate raiders? Spiritless spiritual leaders? Creators of oppressive laws?
How we combat the Bull Connors of our day will be written for later generations to judge. Whether we come out on the winning side of history, though, depends on how well we cultivate conditions that allow the human soul and spirit to flourish, not wither. To do that, we need more love, not hate.
Rev. Shuttlesworth showed us what love truly meant. He plugged in to a Power that caused him to keep going after all the jailings, bombings, beatings and economic pressures that would have forced any ordinary man, or woman, to quit. Certainly there are things well worth living for, but how important can they be if they’re not worth dying for?
To be honest, I’m not sure I’m willing to go as far as he did. Maybe my motivation isn’t strong enough. I certainly want to get to that point, though.
After he left us yesterday, I’m sure he heard the words “Well done, My good and faithful servant!” Thank you, Rev. Shuttlesworth, for doing your part in paving the way forward for us all. May the fire that burned in your heart now pass on to us. I pray we don’t let your fire go out.
Quotes taken from the book, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, by Andrew Manis, pgs 160-61; 135.
Birmingham View Video:
Dedication ceremony renaming·Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in honor of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, April 3, 2009.