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.
That same year, Shuttlesworth helped Martin Luther King Jr. organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Almost immediately, he began pressing King to launch protests in Birmingham. King, however, was cautious, unsure as to whether the city's professional class and civil rights old guard would support direct-action protests, especially with the blunt-spoken, militant Shuttlesworth in a leadership role. So King-led protests did not begin until 1963.
Shuttlesworth was not some smooth city guy. He had been raised in Alabama's backwoods and had been convicted of running his family's whiskey still in 1941. He'd been a truck driver and cement worker before becoming a Baptist preacher.
Although Shuttlesworth's bravery was already legendary, my generation of activists' first meaningful contact with him happened during the 1961 Freedom Rides. He tracked the Klan and informed CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) of its violent plans. After Klansmen in Birmingham beat Freedom Rider Jim Peck into unconsciousness, Shuttlesworth boldly walked into the bus station and carried him to a hospital. Two days later in Montgomery, as hundreds of Klansmen surrounded the church of King colleague Ralph Abernathy, where Freedom Riders and local supporters were gathered, Shuttlesworth conducted CORE Director Jim Farmer through the mob into the church.
Nothing can be written that pays enough tribute to this unsung hero of the Southern freedom movement — at least nothing that I am able to write. So let's conclude with words that are both preacherly and political, and so Shuttlesworth: "God made me dynamite-proof."
Charles Cobb Jr. was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.