‘He took away the fear’

‘He took away the fear’

Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth was an icon of the civil rights movement who was treated as a hero when we walked the streets of Birmingham. I continue to be honored to have met a man who shaped the history and policy of our nation.

BRATTLEBORO — I met Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth in 2004 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where he was a featured speaker in an interactive field study, “Alabama's role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement.”

The Alabama Humanities Foundation invited K-12 educators from across the country to participate in this intensive institute, which featured lectures by scholars, interactions with leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, travel to key sites dedicated to the preservation of civil rights history in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and Tuskegee, Ala., and the review of archival film footage and other primary source documents as they developed curricular projects.

After listening to Rev. Shuttlesworth, I approached him to find an affable, cordial, accommodating, and warm individual. I asked him: If I were to bring students to Birmingham, would he be willing to spend a day or two with us to show us the environs of Birmingham and share his experiences?

He agreed.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was living and working as a pastor in Cincinnati at the time and we agreed on two conditions: we would pay for his travel to and from Cincinnati and for his accommodations.

When making the arrangements, I asked Rev. Shuttlesworth where he would like to stay in Birmingham.

“At the Tutwiler Hotel,” he replied.

His quick answer piqued my interest. Why the Tutwiler?

During the 1960s and well before that, the Tutwiler was a segregated hotel. In 1948, the Tutwiler hosted delegates to the convention of the States' Rights Democratic Party, whose members included the southern Democrats who had walked out of the Democratic Party national convention in Philadelphia when the body adopted a civil rights platform. These lawmakers were popularly known as “Dixiecrats.”

His response: “Because I can.”

* * *

Once in Birmingham, we were a group of all-white people accompanying a single Black man who was hugely important to the movement, and especially to the city. As we walked the streets with Rev. Shuttlesworth, we noted the reaction of local citizens, all Black.

They teased us in a loving way. This group of white kids from Vermont, down here? What are these 20 white kids doing in here? We probably met a dozen to 15 people on our way from the Tutwiler Hotel into downtown Birmingham to see the 16th Street Baptist Church.

“We were taken aback by some people who would walk by us, probably just curious,” one student, Carolyn Wesley, recalled.

It was very heartwarming to see the way people responded to Rev. Shuttlesworth. Onlookers would see him, and some of them immediately would go right up to him to shake his hand. Some of them would hug him and thank him. Younger people, maybe in their teens or their 20s, would walk by. Some would do a double take, turn around, and look as if to ask, “Is that the guy from our history class?”

One of the younger people actually came back and talked with him, giving him thanks from a new generation.

* * *

Birmingham had attracted national attention with its strict segregation and racial hatred. It was a city that some called “Bombingham” because of the bomb attacks against Black people.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was among those who had fought the segregated system. In 1956, he demanded the desegregation of city buses. Many of his friends tried to talk him out it.

Because of his efforts, his house and church (Bethel Baptist) were bombed as he slept. At the scene of the bombing, he told us what happened.

“I was lying on my mattress. I was conscious that it was a bomb. I was conscious that it was made for me. My name was firmly written on it. They placed it exactly where it would demolish me into eternity. But God in his grace had erased [my name] from the dynamite before it exploded.

“I knew what it was. I knew instantly. I felt being pushed away, I guess from the blast,” he said. “But I also knew that I wouldn't get hurt. I also knew and felt a presence that I have never felt before. And I knew that God was there. As the bomb went off. I never [felt] anything.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation. The Lord is a strength of my life. And when my enemies come upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and failed,” he said.

Despite the blast from 16 sticks of dynamite, Rev. Shuttlesworth escaped injury.

“This house was blown almost to the street, demolished,” he told us. “God was there.

“The floor was blown off from under the bed. The Lord was there, and I never felt better in my life. I've never been in a situation where I felt better, more comfortable, and more ready,” Rev. Shuttlesworth said.

He walked to the other side of his parsonage, where he came face to face with a Birmingham policeman, who, like a large percentage of police at the time, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and who turned “white as a ghost” upon seeing the Reverend alive.

The officer urged Rev. Shuttlesworth to get out of town and said that he never felt that the KKK “would go this far” as to kill him.

“Well, you're not me,” he recalled telling the officer. “I'm not going to run. If God could keep me through this, then I'm here for the duration.”

Student Jordan Lafland, later writing about his field work with Rev. Shuttlesworth, had a lingering question.

“What kind of people would bomb a church, plot to kill a minister, be emboldened with such hatred?” he asked. “Could this hatred be overcome by the nonviolent tactics promoted by Rev. Shuttlesworth and others?”

* * *

We saw Rev. Shuttlesworth as he chose to downplay and deny the importance of his role for the fight for equality. But he was unquestionably an icon of the movement.

As we walked the streets of Birmingham, dozens of people recognized him and approached to shake his hand. I shook his hand as we parted, and years later, I continue to be honored to have met a man who shaped the history and policy of our nation.

Deacon Ruben Davis of Bethel Baptist told our group that Fred Shuttlesworth “has done more for Black people than Abraham Lincoln. He took away the fear.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth was quick to remind us all that “there is still much to be done. The quest for equal opportunity has not been reached.

“It's better than it was,” he said, “but it's up to young people like you to carry the struggle to its conclusion.”

* * *

Rev. Shuttlesworth began to attract attention in September of 1957, when he attempted to enroll his children in all-white Phillips High School in Birmingham.

We heard that story from the former district attorney for northeast Alabama, Doug Jones (a recent United States senator from Alabama who was defeated in the 2020 election). Jones convicted Bobby Frank Cherry for participating in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an act that killed four young African American girls.

According to Attorney Jones, ”Fred had put the word out that he was, in the fall of 1957, going to enroll his children.”

In response, a mob gathered outside the school, and Rev. Shuttlesworth was kicked and beaten badly and, before he could get his wife into the car, she was knocked down.

As we watched a video of the attack on the Shuttlesworths, Jones narrated the scene.

“Keep your eye on this guy,” he said, pointing to a figure in the video, identified as Bobby Frank Cherry. “You will see him reach into his pocket and pull something out.”

Cherry was reaching for some brass knuckles to make his punch more lethal.

This kind of violence was not stopped by city officials. The most famous was Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose opinions earned him election to six terms as commissioner of public safety. Connor would say about the law in Birmingham, “Damn the law. Down here, I am the law.”

This attack on Rev. Shuttlesworth took place the same day as the initial attempt at desegregating Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School. The movement there had targeted a “moderate” southern city's school system for integration by enrolling nine Black high school students at the school.

Violence erupted and lasted the entire school year. President Eisenhower would send the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to prevent “mob rule” and protect the students. This was what dominated national headlines, not Rev. Shuttlesworth's effort in Birmingham.

The Freedom Ride of May 1961 was to travel from Washington, D.C to New Orleans. Two buses with interracial groups would ride the buses through the deep South, Black people riding in the front of the buses, white people in the back. When stopping, each group would use facilities intended for the other. The riders would travel through Alabama, stopping in Birmingham and in Montgomery, the state capitol.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was instrumental in the route through Alabama. But before the riders could arrive in Birmingham they were firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. Their two-bus caravan was reduced to one, and they moved on to Birmingham where a mob awaited them at the bus station. They were severely beaten - it is believed with the approval of Bull Connor. It was Mother's Day.

In 2004, Rev. Shuttlesworth told me the beaten Freedom Riders were taken to his home.

Bull Connor came under heavy criticism for allowing this beating to happen. Birmingham's image was damaged. When asked where the police were to prevent any violence, Connor replied, “They were at home with their mothers.”

Just as there was serious doubt at this time about the continuation of the Freedom Ride, Diane Nash, a stalwart in the civil rights movement, called Rev. Shuttlesworth from Nashville, saying students had decided to travel to Birmingham to enhance a “massive demonstration” and to keep the ride advancing on its planned route.

When reorganized, the Freedom Ride would continue from Birmingham to Montgomery, about 90 miles. Rev. Shuttlesworth intended to board the bus and ride with them.

“A police chief met me at the corner,” he told us. “I think he was a Christian in his heart. He comes to me and says in a friendly tone, 'Freddy Lee, are you going to ride the bus?'

“I said, 'Yes, I'm gonna ride it.'

“He says, 'Suppose I gave you a lawful order not to ride?'

“I said, “But you can't give me a lawful order not to ride the buses when I have a lawful ticket.

“As I stepped up on the bus, he reached out and grabbed me, saying, 'I'm arresting you for refusing to obey a lawful order.'”

John Siegenthaler, an American journalist, writer and political figure who later became Robert F. Kennedy's administrative assistant, took Shuttlesworth's place.

The Freedom Riders were attacked at the Montgomery bus station and, again, badly beaten. Siegenthaler was hit in the head with a pipe.

Had Rev. Shuttlesworth traveled with the Freedom Riders on that bus, “I would have been killed,” he said.

* * *

Rev. Shuttlesworth had invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Birmingham for what would eventually become Project C (for “confrontation”). It would feature the Children's Campaign - “not college students, but high school students, junior high school and elementary students, who marched and went to jail,” he said.

During Project C in 1963 at the conclusion of a demonstration near the 16th Street Baptist Church, Rev. Shuttlesworth came out the side door of the church. He was spotted by Bull Connor, who directed the Birmingham Fire Department to spray Rev. Shuttlesworth with a fire hose.

Rev.Shuttlesworth was at the bottom of the main stairway on the sidewalk at the time. The force of the water hitting him was so great it rolled him up the steps and injured him badly enough to be admitted to the hospital.

While recuperating in the hospital, Shuttlesworth had received news that Dr. King was about to strike a deal in the ongoing negotiations between Birmingham city officials and the movement - a deal that Shuttlesworth believed amounted to abject surrender and would be totally unacceptable.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was driven from the hospital and burst into Dr. King's room in the A.G. Gaston Motel in downtown Birmingham. As Dr. King, in pajamas, was enjoying a steak dinner, Rev. Shuttlesworth went off on a tirade, according to some of the people who were there. Nobody did that to Dr. King.

Rev. Shuttlesworth said his parting comment to Dr. King was, “If you go through with this deal, Dr. King, after tomorrow, your name in Birmingham will be Mr. Shit.”

Andrew Young, who eventually served in the Carter Administration as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would comment that after Rev. Shuttlesworth left the room, Dr. King broke a long silence.

“Fred is right. Fred has the people, and without Fred there can be no deal.”

A deal was struck upon Shuttlesworth's return to health and the movement's objectives were realized. The announcement of a real deal - this one on May 10, 1963 to announce a pact with the city to desegregate water fountains, lunch counters, restrooms, and department store changing rooms - was held at a press conference in the parking lot of the A.G. Gaston Motel.

“It was late in the morning when Dr. King came over to see me,” Rev. Shuttlesworth recalled. “Everybody was agog about this young man with a Ph.D. That did not bother me. You had preconceived notions of him. He took them off right away.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth described King to us as “a self-demeaning, self-effacing person.” The two discussed the wrongs of segregation and talked about Gandhi.

“Dr. King honestly said you must use nonviolence as a tactic and you might learn what nonviolence really is,” Rev. Shuttlesworth told us. “In the darkness of circumstances, we can overcome hate - one person, even a student, when people can find something for which they can hear themselves.”

Even despite his reflections, I believe that Rev. Shuttlesworth bore a resentment of Dr. King - a feeling fueled by the immediate respect that Dr. King garnered, his pedigree, his father's reputation as one of the South's great Black preachers at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, his Ph.D. and his worldwide recognition after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and his recognition of the nonviolent civil rights movement.

* * *

On Oct. 5, 2011, The New York Times reported Rev. Shuttlesworth's passing.

“The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a storied civil rights leader who survived beatings and bombings in Alabama a half-century ago as he fought against racial injustice alongside the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. He was 89.”

I reported this news to my students in a high school classroom. We had been studying the civil rights movement and I, a person who was very rarely emotional in front of students, apparently became mildly visibly upset.

With what the students had learned about Birmingham and Rev. Shuttlesworth, some of my students said, “We are sorry for the loss of your friend.”

It was appreciated.

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