News / USA

Civil Rights Pioneer Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth Is Remembered

In this June 2007 file photo, Civil rights activist the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth departs the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama.
In this June 2007 file photo, Civil rights activist the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth departs the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama.

One of the leaders of the the civil rights movement in America, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, died recently and will be buried later this month [October 24] in his home town of Birmingham, Alabama. Shuttlesworth was a fire-and-brimstone preacher who endured a bombing, and beatings.

Many prominent African Americans believe that without Shuttlesworth, the civil-rights movement would not have achieved what it did.

Mayor William Bell of Birmingham, Alabama, said, "Oh, I would not be the mayor of the city of Birmingham were it not for the courageous acts of Reverend Shuttlesworth, and I will forever be grateful."

As pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Shuttlesworth was outspoken in his campaigning for civil rights and he aggressively confronted the Klu Klux Klan.

His home and church were bombed and he was beaten when he tried to enroll his daughters in an all-white high school.

Shuttlesworth formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And in the early 1960s, he encouraged King to come to Birmingham and focus his efforts in the city.

"From that point on, the civil-rights movement gained international prominence, especially after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, as well as Reverend Shuttlesworth's home itself," said Bell.

The death of four girls in the 16th Street Church bombing by the KKK, and the unleashing of police dogs and firehoses on civil rights demonstrators, shocked the nation and the world.

Bell first met Shuttlesworth in 1963 at a rally. He said the reverend often talked about how God had removed all fear from him.

"And he was a man that walked without fear, and it was very evident anytime you met him he just had this aura about him," remembered Bell.

Shuttlesworth was sometimes criticized for his confrontational attitude, in contrast to the conciliatory manner of Dr. King.

In an interview with the oral history project of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Shuttlesworth recalled encouraging his followers to form a new civil-rights group after Alabama outlawed the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  

"I asked them, do they want to organize three or four different times. I said, 'Now if you want to organize you must remember that it may mean going to jail. It may mean death for some of us.' But if you do not have something that you would give your life for you may not find anything worth living for," said Shuttlesworth.

Shuttlesworth's death on October 5 was overshadowed by the passing of another transformational American figure, Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs. But those who knew Reverend Shuttlesworth say he was not out for recognition.

The funeral will be held October 24 at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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