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.
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.