God’s Agitator

God’s Agitator

LEGEND: A statue of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stands in front of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

As an evangelical Christian teaching theology in a secular university, over the years I have cleaved to civil rights saints like Fred Shuttlesworth for wisdom and encouragement. I have, of course, never been attacked by racist mobs or police dogs, nor have I been put in jail for speaking the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to get a whiff of Jim Crow in an academic culture that continues to evade the theological discoveries of Reverend Shuttlesworth and his brother and sister travelers in that great Pentecostal moment called the American civil rights movement.  Rev. Shuttleworth’s death last week once again reminded us of the centrality of faith in the black freedom struggle.

Like the prophet Amos, the tender of sycamore trees who was called in from the sticks to proclaim the justice of the Lord, Rev. Shuttlesworth agitated righteously, with guns pointed on him and lynch mobs forming everywhere, a fully realized African American male, an exemplar of civil courage and costly discipleship. He offered the segregated South a generous helping of hilaritas, a “boldness and defiance of the world and of popular opinion,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “a steadfast certainty that in their own work they are showing the world something good (even if the world doesn’t like it).”

An exchange with the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor during the heat of the city sit-ins offered not only high theological drama but ample evidence of theological deftness and imagination:

Connor:  You know what I think? I think you have done more to set your people back and cause more trouble than any Negro ever in this town.

Shuttlesworth: Mr. Commissioner, whether I’ve done more to set them back or you, that’s a matter for history to decide. The problem is what will you do?

Connor:  I aint’ doin’ nothin’ for you!

Shuttlesworth:  I haven’t asked you to do anything for me. I asked you to do for the Negro community, of whom you are the Commissioner.

Connor: Well, I ain’t gon’ do nothing for you.

Shuttlesworth: Well, I was pretty sure you wouldn’t when I came down, but the fact is we asked, and the Bible says ask.

Bull Connor, guardian of the Southern Way of Life, came undone under the glare of the New Kingdom’s brilliant light.

Rev. Shuttlesworth continued: “I just don’t believe I have to cringe before a thing when God’s already promised it. “[For] the question comes down to … ‘Do you believe in God or not?’” 

Shuttlesworth later said the only way he found such strength was in the confidence he had in “the everlasting arms of Jesus.”

What about Bull Connor? When asked by Samuel Hoskins, a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American visiting Birmingham, whether his brutal strategies were legal, Bull shouted wildly, “Damn the Law. We don’t give a damn about the law.”

Shuttlesworth “conducted his civil rights activities with his hands still tightly grasping the pastoral reins of his local churches,” as my friend Andrew Manis told us in his wonderful 2001 biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. He believed that God was the great deliverer, who showed the Israelites that “all was not Egypt” and set the captives free.

MAKING HISTORY: Rev. Shuttlesworth (far right) marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in March of 1965. (Newscom photo)

Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a glimpse of the New Kingdom: “Against the racist’s hate and scorn we are using the love of Christ, against his oppressive and abusive acts we are using the weapon of Prayer on whose mystic wings we sweep into the presence of God to lay out our troubles.” He decentered the totalizing claims of white southern Christendom, one might also say, but he did it for the sake of the in-breaking reality of the kingdom of God.

Shuttlesworth’s was indeed a soul on fire. During a speech commemorating the second anniversary of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, of which he was the founding president, he framed the ongoing civil rights struggle as “a religious crusade” and a “fight between light and darkness.” He concluded:

“Thus we are never tempted to hate white people or to return them evil for evil. …Always remember that we are healed by the ‘wounds in His side,’ not by wounds we inflict upon others….  Victory waits on those who work for victory. And victory is sure — Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Andrew Manis explained that the Birmingham minister practiced a “holistic religious philosophy that did not separate physical, social or political needs from the spiritual,” unlike the religion of gnostic southern evangelical Christianity. Shuttlesworth operated instead out of a theological worldview that refused to segregate discipleship to Jesus and righteous action in the social order. And through the courageous faith of men and women like Rev. Shuttlesworth, our nation was changed.

The Importance of Fred Shuttlesworth

The Importance of Fred Shuttlesworth

NOT IN VAIN: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (seated) in 2007 with then-U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama at a commemoration of the 1965 Selma March in Selma, Alabama. (Tami Chappell/Newscom Photo)

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:

I. Fearless

Curtiss DeYoung

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.

II. Transformative

Edward Blum

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.

Edward Blum, Ph.D., historian on race and religion in the United States at San Diego State University and author of several books, including W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet.

Your Thoughts?

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?