African American Baptist pastor and the central leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Fred Lee Shuttlesworth (1922–2011) was one of the pioneering figures in the civil rights era. The organization he founded in 1956, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), joined with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to protest segregation in Birmingham in 1963. Partly as a result of those direct-action demonstrations, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Born in Montgomery County on March 18, 1922, Shuttlesworth was raised near Birmingham in rural Oxmoor, Jefferson County. Brought up by his tough-minded mother, Alberta Robinson Shuttlesworth Webb, Shuttlesworth developed a combative personality that prepared him for civil rights leadership in Alabama. During World War II, he worked as a truck driver at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, and then, after experiencing what he believed to be a ministerial calling, Shuttlesworth enrolled in the now-defunct Cedar Grove Bible College in Mobile and later in Selma University, both Baptist institutions. He eventually graduated from Alabama State College in 1952 and became the pastor of Selma's First Baptist Church. Personality clashes with deacons led to his ouster, however, and in early 1953 he took over as pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in north Birmingham.
After his move to Birmingham, Shuttlesworth became active in voter registration efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and in Civic League attempts to clean up saloons in Birmingham. He also supported the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. In June 1956 Shuttlesworth founded the ACMHR in response to an Alabama circuit court injunction against the NAACP. For the next 13 years Shuttlesworth and his organization spearheaded civil rights agitation in Birmingham, beginning with calls to integrate the Birmingham Police Department. In December 1956, on the heels of the victorious bus boycott in Montgomery, Shuttlesworth attempted to desegregate the Birmingham Transit Company. After Shuttlesworth announced plans to lead black riders in a protest on December 26, segregationists bombed his home. Shuttlesworth survived the explosion unharmed, which convinced him and his followers that God had miraculously saved him "to lead the fight" against segregation.
Ironically, Shuttlesworth's earliest civil rights efforts in Birmingham made possible a political comeback by arch-segregationist Eugene T. "Bull" Connor, who promised voters that he would personally stop integrationists like Shuttlesworth from achieving their goals. In 1957, Connor was elected commissioner of public safety, thus beginning a six-year contest between the men—two symbolic and physical embodiments of the forces pulling the South apart in the era of Massive Resistance.
In 1957 Shuttlesworth helped fellow ministers and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy found the SCLC, which became the most important civil rights organization in the South during the 1960s. Shuttlesworth also served as one of the SCLC's original officers. He made national news in September 1957 when he was severely beaten while attempting to enroll two of his daughters in the all-white Phillips High School. The incident, however, was soon overshadowed by the volatile events surrounding the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Seeking to integrate Birmingham "on all fronts," the Birmingham minister became perhaps the most activist and most militant civil rights leader of the era. His persistence consistently angered Connor, who used both the police and fire departments to try to scare local African Americans away from the ACMHR's well-attended weekly meetings. Connor also conspired with segregationists in two bombings of Bethel Baptist Church, neither of which resulted in any fatalities.
Shuttlesworth's defiance of Connor and the dangers of challenging segregation became legendary as he took his place with King and Abernathy as the "Big Three" of the movement. He often boasted that he "tried to get killed in Birmingham," causing detractors to question his sanity on occasion. Shuttlesworth traveled the country often, and in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 he witnessed the first student sit-ins, a tactic he commended to King and brought back to students at Birmingham's Miles College. In 1961 he protected Freedom Riders at his home after they were beaten by mobs at the Birmingham bus terminal.
Beginning in 1958 Shuttlesworth continually hounded King, insisting that he bring the SCLC, and the national news media which typically accompanied it, to Birmingham for joint protests with the ACMHR. He saw the defeat of segregation in Birmingham as crucial to the success of the civil rights movement throughout the South. The more deliberate and cautious King would not commit until he was sure such a campaign was supported by the black professional classes in the city. Shuttlesworth's aggressive style and lack of educational polish grated on the sensibilities of the black bourgeoisie, who often accused him of egotistical grandstanding.
By early 1963, however, King answered Shuttlesworth's call, and the two organizations launched historic demonstrations in Birmingham. Building on Shuttlesworth's seven years of effort, and planned with the assistance of ACMHR members, the Birmingham demonstrations began in April and ended on May 10, 1963, with city businesses agreeing to begin desegregating downtown department stores. As the events unfolded, international news agencies depicted massive marches that included more than 2,000 youthful protesters, many of whom were arrested and who completely clogged the jails of Birmingham. Beyond Birmingham the demonstrations pressured President John F. Kennedy to introduce into Congress legislation that eventually became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This law effectively ended segregation in public accommodations in the United States, and with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, formed the legislative high-water marks of the civil rights movement. When meeting with King, Shuttlesworth, and others on the day he introduced the bill, Kennedy remarked, "But for Birmingham, we would not be here today."
After the mid-1960s, Shuttleworth's civil rights activities continued both locally and nationally, but he kept in close touch with Birmingham's African American community. Working with Birmingham's first black mayor, Richard Arrington, Shuttlesworth helped bring to fruition the establishment of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Museum, where a statue of Shuttlesworth greets thousands of visitors every year. In 1989 he established the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation, which helps low-income Cincinnatians purchase their first homes. From 2003 to 2004 he served as interim president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In July 2008, the Birmingham Airport Authority voted to honor Shuttlesworth by renaming the city's airport as the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
Shuttlesworth also continued his pastoral ministries into his eighties at the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati,
Ohio. He outlived King and many other leaders of the black freedom struggle and became an icon of the movement, recounting
his exploits in Martin Luther King Day speeches and admonishing the nation to continue the work toward racial harmony and
justice. Shuttlesworth died on October 5, 2011, in Birmingham.
Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Manis, Andrew M. A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
White, Marjorie, and Andrew M. Manis, ed. Birmingham Revolutionaries: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000.
Macon State College
Published March 9, 2007
Last updated August 27, 2014