Word came this past Wednesday of the death of civil rights pioneer the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. I have no idea how many lions remain, but there can’t be many left from that original group of brave clergy and laity who in the l960s challenged the rigid system of racial segregation throughout the South and the rest of the nation.
Shuttlesworth was not as well known as leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Joseph Lowery. But Shuttlesworth was in the very thick of the fight in his Birmingham home. His church and his house were bombed because of his continuing confrontations with the white power structure of that city, and he was beaten for trying to enroll his children in an all white school.
Other leaders were more polished, better speakers, more willing to take a gradual, measured approach to eradicating the evil of second-class citizenship. Not Shuttlesworth. He knew what was right; he knew that he was a free-born citizen of the United States having the constitutional right to vote, to ride a city bus, to have equal protection under the law and an equal right for his children’s education.
When the city fined and arrested him, he never backed down. Once freed from jail, he would file a counter-suit. He was more than an irritant to Sheriff Bull Conner and the rest of the Birmingham power structure.
Shuttlesworth’s tactics made many enemies, both within the power structure and probably to a certain extent in his own community. There will always be a battle over whether to confront entrenched evil slowly, step by step, or whether to refuse to make any compromises with the devil. Shuttlesworth followed this second approach and the Civil Rights Movement was better because of him and others like him.
When a Martin Luther King would come to a city like Birmingham, it was only because people like Fred Shuttlesworth had laid the groundwork and made it possible for King to make an appearance, garner much needed publicity for the movement, and then move on, leaving the day-to-day confrontations and the nitty-gritty work to those at ground level.
I was privileged to hear Fred Shuttlesworth speak some years ago. Already an elder statesman he had lost some of his physical health, but his drive and determination were inspiring. Sitting on my bookshelf is the definitive biography of this civil rights icon. Written by Andrew M. Manis, “A Fire You Can’t Put Out” is heady reading for anybody who needs an example of resolute courage in the face of unrelenting oppression.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, Shuttlesworth could do nothing else his entire life but battle the forces that would oppress. At the risk of his family, his career and his reputation he stood for what was right because it was the right thing to do. Our nation is a better nation because of this fiery pastor.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.