We’ve moved!
Visit the new Library of America blog at our new website: www.loa.org/news-and-views

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Remembering Fred Shuttlesworth, civil rights pioneer who made history on street corners

Fred Shuttlesworth, an icon of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, died last week at 89. With Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, Shuttlesworth was one of the “Big Three” who planned and led the protests and demonstrations that led to the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

While both were founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, Shuttlesworth and King came from quite different backgrounds, as The New York Times obituary notes:
Dr. King was a polished product of Atlanta’s black middle class. A graduate of Morehouse College, he held a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University. Fred Shuttlesworth was a child of poor black Alabama whose ministerial degree was from an unaccredited black school. (He later earned a master’s degree in education from Alabama State College.)
The Times quotes Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home, her Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham in 1963:
Among the youthful “elders” of the movement, [Shuttlesworth] was Martin Luther King’s most effective and insistent foil: blunt where King was soothing, driven where King was leisurely, and most important, confrontational where King was conciliatory—meaning, critically, that he was more upsetting than King in the eyes of the white public.
In “Tear Gas and Hymns,” his account of the siege of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, during the violent days of the May 1961 Freedom Rides, Murray Kempton describes Shuttlesworth as “the merriest agitator of them all.” The Guardian’s obituary relates a revealing incident from the same period:
When the riders were beaten up in Anniston, Alabama, Shuttlesworth, on his own initiative, organized a convoy of 15 cars to rescue them. Later, when the riders were surrounded by a mob of about 1,000 armed white people, Shuttlesworth escorted another civil rights leader, James Farmer, to the church. "He was either insane or the most courageous man I have ever met," Farmer said later. "Shuttlesworth just walked through them, as cool as a cucumber. I think they were intimidated by his boldness."
In January 1963 Shuttlesworth invited King to come to Birmingham and make the city the center of the next stage of the civil rights struggle. While King prepared for the offensive by touring the country and giving twenty-eight speeches in sixteen cities, Shuttlesworth engineered the strategy, studying city laws and march routes. The demonstrations began in March but the climax came in May, when the organizers recruited schoolchildren to participate. On the first day that the children marched, school buses ferried some 959 children off to detention areas. The next day Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor deployed police dogs and fire hoses on the young protesters. Images of children being tossed in the air by torrents of water were broadcast nationwide. In Eyes on the Prize Juan Williams quotes David Vann, an attorney and eyewitness to these events, as saying that when Connor’s troops attacked the children “in the twinkling of an eye the whole black community consolidated . . . behind Dr. King.”

Shuttlesworth himself was hosed and knocked against a wall with such force that he was hospitalized for several days. When Connor heard this, according to Claude Sitton’s report in The New York Times, he exclaimed, “I waited a week to see Shuttlesworth get hit with a hose. I’m sorry I missed it.” Told that Shuttlesworth had been taken away in an ambulance, Connor replied, “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”

Shuttlesworth was never daunted. An NPR memorial quotes historian Horace Huntley: “He would lead demonstrations, and he would call Bull Connor and say, ‘Bull, I will be on such and such corner; if you want to be part of history, be there.’”

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: Part One: American Journalism 1941–1963 (includes Murray Kempton on the 1961 Freedom Rides and many articles on Birmingham in 1963)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Wikio - Top Blogs - Literature