By Alan Bean
Fred Shuttlesworth is dead at 89. He never thought he would survive the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Far less protective of his personal safety than men like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, Shuttlesworth attributed his survival to the grace of God. He couldn’t think of any other explanation.
Frankly, neither can I.
It was Shuttlesworth that convinced MLK to come to Birmingham in 1956, the year his home was fire-bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, and it was Shuttleworth’s courage that sustained the movement. The Birmingham preacher drafted children into the movement when most of the able-bodied adults were already in prison. In 1961, when a mob of white segregationists surrounded his Birmingham church, it was Shuttlesworth who calmed the crowd.
Shuttlesworth had been sparring with Police Chief Bull Conner for seven years before the Birmingham campaign reached its peak. It was during these years of relative anonymity that Shuttlesworth was the most vulnerable. Not nearly as erudite as the silver-tongued Martin Luther King, Shuttlesworth was an old-time “hooping” preacher. While King struggled to win the support of progressive and moderate whites, Shuttlesworth inspired the foot soldiers.
When he came to preach at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in October of 1978, I had never heard of Fred Shuttlesworth. The civil rights narrative trumpeted in the mainstream media had only a few hero slots available, and Rev. Fred never made the cut. Shuttlesworth had been invited to speak at Southern by Andrew Manis, then an M.Div student. A decade later, Manis would write the acclaimed biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
Old-school black preachers are often unnerved by predominantly white audiences. There is an interactive cadence to black preaching that washes back and forth between the preacher and the congregation. Preaching to an unresponsive audience, it’s hard to get your rhythm. So it was for Shuttlesworth at Southern. His voice was almost inaudible at first, and his delivery seemed forced.
But something he said struck a chord with my wife, Nancy. “Amen,” she shouted, as loudly as she dared.
“I’ll take that amen!” Shuttlesworth roared back, and suddenly, he was a man transformed. When the sermon ended, we were all on our feet whooping and hollering.
You had to look hard to find a mention of Shuttlesworth’s death in America’s flagship newspapers. The death of Steve Jobs and Sarah Palin’s political career grabbed the headlines. But no one did more to kill Jim Crow than the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.