Two cultural pioneers died Wednesday: Apple founder Steve Jobs and civil rights champion Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Both men were hailed as bold, fearless innovators who held sway over a younger generation and who used existing “technologies” to change the world.
For Jobs it was computer hardware and software; for Shuttlesworth, it was the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, which he invited into Birmingham, Ala. where he helped build a national stage upon which the battle for racial justice played out. Shuttlesworth rightly discerned that once Americans saw Police Commissioner Bull Connor’s hateful overreaction to African Americans’ pursuit of equality, their eyes would be opened to the cruelty and injustice of Jim Crow racism.
Jobs’ more recent triumphs may dominate the news cycle today, but for many Americans Shuttleworth’s legacy might be even more revolutionary.
A Courageous Visionary
The civil rights pioneer was 89 when he died in Birmingham, Ala. He had pastored Bethel Baptist Church there but moved to Cincinnati with his family in the early 1960s, CNN reported. In Cincinnati, he remained active in civil rights and pastored the Greater New Light Baptist Church from 1966 to 2008. Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham in 2008 after suffering a stroke and was being cared for in a nursing home, according to NPR.
“Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in,” Georgia Rep. John Lewis told NPR. “He led an unbelievable children’s crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs [in Birmingham] that moved and shook the nation.”
Shuttlesworth “personally challenged just about every segregated institution in the city — from schools and parks to buses, even the waiting room at the train station,” Historian Horace Huntley of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute told NPR.
After an Alabama judge outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and then helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also asked U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to protect the Freedom Riders, NPR reported.
Shuttlesworth was repeatedly jailed, and his home and church were bombed, but he refused to be intimidated. In the documentary Eyes on the Prize, he said that after one bombing he told Klansman police officers to go back and tell their fellow racists, “If God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration,” NPR reported.
A Testament to Strength
President Barack Obama said yesterday that Shuttlesworth “dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans” and “was a testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
“America owes Reverend Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Sephira, and their family, friends and loved ones,” President Obama said.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Shuttlesworth a Presidential Citizens Medal for his leadership in the “non-violent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s,” according to CNN. In the video below, Rev. Shuttlesworth reflects on his commitment to nonviolent resistance in the face of racist violence.
Shuttlesworth’s Unique Contribution
UrbanFaith asked two scholars of religion and race for their thoughts on Shuttlesworth’s significance. Here’s what they had to say:
For over twenty years I have taught a course each semester to undergraduates on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Always in the process of learning we discover that the struggle for civil rights, racial justice, and human dignity in the United States was the result of tens of thousands of committed people. One of the brightest shining stars and greatest exemplars of courage in the struggle was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
In 1963 Rev. Shuttlesworth invited Dr. King to bring his national efforts at confronting the evils of racism to Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most racist cities in the United States. The images of police dogs and fire hoses assaulting brave protesters, many who were children and youth, are burned into our collective memory. The entire Birmingham protest was marked by an extraordinary expression of courage. And it was Fred Shuttlesworth that most embodied this fearlessness for others to emulate.
It is not an overstatement to say that the success of the protest in Birmingham in 1963 was built on the foundation of several years of courageous acts against racism in Birmingham by Rev. Shuttlesworth. The courageous actions of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth helped produce the achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and subsequent movements for social justice in the years that followed. He leaves a legacy of always speaking and living truth—something we need more of today.
—Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Ph.D., Professor of Reconciliation Studies, Bethel University, and author of several books on Christianity, race, and justice, including Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.
What Shuttlesworth’s story shows is that the movement was precisely that – a movement. Too often, Americans search for individuals as icons; too often they set up one person as the epitome of a story. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, often credits Abraham Lincoln for ending slavery, winning the Civil War, and healing the United States. By lodging social change in one person, Americans fail to see their history for what it was. And Shuttlesworth knew that to change a nation and to change history, it took more than one man.
Shuttlesworth was one of many heroic Americans of the mid and late twentieth
century who transformed the nation. Martin Luther King Jr., was his friend, not
his leader. They were colleagues who joined with other women and men, children and adults, to obliterate segregation. And they did so through faith – in God, in Christ, and in themselves.
Faith led Shuttlesworth to bear violence on his body (as so many others did); it led him to strain on amid death, even of children. Shuttlesworth was a movement man. No individual was bigger than the goal. When we think back to Reverend Shuttlesworth, we can remember him how he would want to be remembered: fortunate to be part of a broad struggle for freedom and uplift.
Former Georgia Rep. Andrew Young told CNN that Shuttlesworth helped launch the national careers of other leaders but chose to serve his churches and work locally to advance the civil rights of all people. What are your thoughts on the passing of this lesser known, but incredibly courageous leader? How does he inspire you?