Reference Entry

Shuttlesworth, Fred Lee (1922 - 2011), Civil Rights Activist, Baptist Clergy

Derek Charles Catsam

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Shuttlesworth, Fred Lee (1922 - 2011), Civil Rights Activist, Baptist Clergy

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civil rights activist and minister, was born Freddie Lee Robinson in Mt. Meigs, Montgomery County, Alabama, the eldest of Alberta Robinson and Vetter Green's two children. In January 1927 Alberta Robinson married William Nathan Shuttlesworth, a onetime miner, small farmer, and small-time bootlegger, and her children took their stepfather's last name.Shuttlesworth attended Rosedale High School, and starting in the early 1940s studied theology at Cedar Grove Academy Bible College and Selma University, and pursued a teaching certificate at Alabama State College. In 1941 he married Birmingham native Ruby Lanette Keeler, a nursing student, whom he had met when both worked as orderlies at Birmingham's Southern Club. In 1950 he became pastor of the First (African) Baptist Church in Selma, a position he left in 1952 after disputes with church lay leaders. In 1953 he took the pastorate at Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church. From the Bethel pastorate Shuttlesworth would become one of the most significant if oftentimes overlooked leaders of the civil rights movement.Shuttlesworth's significant first foray into civil rights issues, and his first of dozens of confrontations with the white authorities in Birmingham, came in July 1955 when he petitioned the Birmingham City Council for black police officers. He organized more than two dozen local ministers to support his call, but the city officials did not relent, finally rejecting his requests in September. Later that year Shuttlesworth attended meetings of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized that city's historic bus boycott, in order to show support for its campaign.In February 1956 Shuttlesworth accompanied Autherine Lucy during her effort to become the first black student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, leading to riots at the state's most prestigious university. In June he founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), the organization with which he would be most closely associated during the civil rights era. The ACMHR became necessary because on 1 June 1956 Alabama circuit judge Walter B. Jones issued an injunction against the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization which Shuttlesworth served as the state's Membership Secretary, on the grounds that the organization had failed to register as a “foreign corporation,” effectively banning that organization in the state. Within a week Shuttlesworth established the ACMHR, which would become something of a proxy organization taking the place and fulfilling the responsibilities of the NAACP in Alabama. From that point on Shuttlesworth expanded his civil rights activities, including pressing for the desegregation of city buses, encouraging qualified black candidates to try to take civil service exams, pursuing litigation when local authorities denied those applications, and challenging segregation laws in the city.As a result of his heightened visibility and his steadfast pursuit of civil rights, Shuttlesworth's home was bombed on Christmas Day 1956. Although the house suffered significant damage, Shuttlesworth escaped without harm, and the next day he led a group of African Americans who challenged Jim Crow laws on city buses, leading to the arrests of twenty-one men. In response to the bombing, Shuttlesworth's congregation showed their support for him by building him a new parsonage and posting guards outside the house to dissuade other attacks. Birmingham's white supremacists were growing increasingly furious with Shuttlesworth and other leaders, and their increasing use of violence would earn the city the nickname “Bombingham.”In 1957 Shuttlesworth accelerated his activism. In January he attended the founding meeting of the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Within a few weeks the organization would change its name to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Martin Luther King Jr. at its helm. Shuttlesworth would soon become the organization's secretary.Shuttlesworth continued to agitate for change in local bus seating laws, spoke at a major civil rights prayer pilgrimage in Washington, D.C., and challenged the city's segregated school system more than three years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education putatively struck down school segregation. When Shuttlesworth attempted to enroll his two daughters, Pat and Ricky, at all-white Phillips High School on 9 September 1957 a white mob set upon Shuttlesworth and his family. His wife and daughter Ricky sustained minor injuries. Shuttlesworth suffered a mild concussion. All of these activities would earn Shuttlesworth the dubious honor of being named 1957's “newsmaker of the year” by the Birmingham World. The designation would only garner Shuttlesworth greater harassment and more serious threats. The next two years saw Shuttlesworth engage in an increasingly tendentious war of words against Birmingham's ironically titled Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, an ardent segregationist with ties to Birmingham's active and prominent Ku Klux Klan chapters. Shuttlesworth's leadership of boycotts of Birmingham's city buses in October 1959 gave Connor the pretext to arrest his nemesis, who turned himself in voluntarily and would serve five days in jail. This would be the first of many arrests for Shuttlesworth.Shuttlesworth was tremendously impressed with the student sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, on 1 February 1960 and spread quickly throughout the South. Shuttlesworth encouraged civil rights leaders to embrace and support the new student-centered phase of the movement and often found that he was disappointed by the tepid responses he received from some of the most prominent leaders of the era. Shuttlesworth encouraged Birmingham's black college students to initiate their own sit-in movement, and when they followed his lead at five Birmingham businesses at the end of March, Connor had Shuttlesworth arrested again.A few weeks later Shuttlesworth was one of the defendants named in Sullivan v. New York Times, a libel case brought by segregationist leaders in order to drain the resources of the movement and to make coverage of it prohibitively difficult. In November, Shuttlesworth and his codefendants, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, Reverend Solomon Seay, and Reverend Joseph Lowery were found responsible for libel with damages assessed at half a million dollars. (The Supreme Court would eventually overturn the decision in March 1964.)In May 1961 when the Freedom Riders passed through Alabama and the violent intransigence of some of the state's whites became clear for the world to see, Shuttlesworth played a vital role. In planning the Freedom Rides James Farmer and other leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality made sure to develop close contacts on the ground to provide housing and to address crises as they emerged. Shuttlesworth proved to be perhaps the most able of all of these contacts, and on several occasions he served as a protector and guardian angel of the Freedom Riders. He arranged to have them shuttled out of harm's way in Anniston, similarly rescued battered riders in Birmingham, lodged and nursed the wounded with the help of Ruby and the rest of his family, and generally stood up against the violent onslaught that the Freedom Riders evoked from Anniston to Birmingham to Montgomery over the course of just more than a week.In 1961 Revelation Baptist Church in Cincinnati began an aggressive courtship of Shuttlesworth to take over its pulpit. Shuttlesworth was torn and refused the offer at first, but the Revelation officials appointed him anyway. In June he announced his acceptance of the post, which he would begin in August. Shuttlesworth would split his time between Birmingham and Ohio for the next few years, including 1963, the most explosive year in Birmingham's history.On 3 April 1963 the SCLC launched Project C (for “Confrontation”) with students from Miles College engaging in sit-ins at the lunch counters of five downtown department stores. Nationally, Martin Luther King Jr. would become the most public face of the Birmingham protests as he was of the movement as a whole by 1963, but Shuttlesworth proved to be the most visible local leader in the rapidly escalating campaign that increasingly drew violent reactions from Connor's police forces. The events in Birmingham in 1963 finally inspired President John Kennedy to propose a comprehensive civil rights bill, but his November assassination placed that responsibility in the hands of his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, demanding desegregation of all public facilities, on 2 July, but not before Shuttlesworth would renew calls for challenges to the status quo in Birmingham.By 1965 civil rights leaders had accelerated their push for voting rights, and when the nation turned its eyes to Selma, Alabama, Shuttlesworth was already there. He marched and spoke at Selma as the crisis developed, culminating in the successful Selma-to-Montgomery March and eventually Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.The Revelation Baptist Church in Cincinnati split in 1966, largely over Shuttlesworth's leadership, and Shuttlesworth took over the dissident faction, the Greater New Light Baptist Church, which he pastored until he retired in 2006. In 1970 he and Ruby divorced (she would die less than a year later of heart failure) and in November 2006 he married Sephira Bailey. Although he never achieved the fame or status of Martin Luther King Jr., Shuttlesworth continued to crusade for justice well into the twenty-first century. In 2004 he became president of the SCLC but resigned soon after, dissatisfied with the direction that the once-vital organization had taken. His Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation, which he established in 1988, has helped hundreds of low-income families purchase their own homes.In 1992, when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Museum opened its doors across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, officials unveiled a statue to stand sentry in front of that testament to the bravery and struggle of those who sacrificed for the civil rights movement. That statue is of Fred Shuttlesworth. He died in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 89.

Reference Entry.  1706 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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