Fred Shuttlesworth: Civil Rights Lion
Dead at 89, the co-founder of SCLC leaves a legacy as a fearless leader.
The wells of courage from which the Southern freedom movement drew its strength are remarkably numerous and deep. Nonetheless, I would be hard-pressed to name anyone who was more courageous than the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who died Wednesday at age 89. There was no one quite like him, and it is almost tragic that -- outside of Alabama or among those, like me, who had direct involvement with the freedom movement -- he is barely known. His life framed a struggle that changed the nation and teaches us the power of commitment.
"I excite things that they might become better," he often said. And that stance constantly put his life at risk. Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in December 1956 Shuttlesworth formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and announced that he and members of this new organization would begin trying to "ride integrated" on Birmingham, Ala.'s city buses.
The Ku Klux Klan reacted, throwing six sticks of dynamite between his house and his church, which was next door. The bombing blew out the foundations and collapsed the roof. The stained-glass windows of the church were shattered, and a huge hole appeared in the basement wall.
The next day, however -- Christmas Day -- Shuttlesworth led black riders onto city buses and was arrested along with 20 others. Shuttlesworth said later that his "miraculous" survival of the Klan bombing convinced him that God had saved him to lead the fight against racism and segregation. As he put it to reporter Howell Raines: "If God could save me through this, then I'm gon' stay here and clear up this ... I wasn't saved to run."
In September 1957, Shuttlesworth and his wife, Ruby, brought their two daughters to Birmingham's all-white Phillips High School in an attempt to register them as students. A white mob beat him mercilessly, using brass knuckles, whips and chains. His wife was stabbed in the buttocks and later told her doctor that her only regret was that modesty prevented her from showing her wounds at the next civil rights mass meeting.