The Ultimate Measure of a Man: Fred Shuttlesworth

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a part of history.

More importantly, I had the opportunity to plop my daughters, my so-called “Beautiful-Black-Women-in-Training” into the center of history.

Their history.

A nation’s history.

Earlier this month, on October 5, 2011, the country lost an icon. Many people- too many- have no idea who Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth even was.

Shameful, given the fact that every single American has benefited from his tireless- and often dangerous- work.

Fred Shuttlesworth was born Freddie Lee Robinson on March 18, 1922 in Mount Miegs, AL. Raised by his mother, he took the last name of his step-father, William Nathan Shuttlesworth, a farmer.

His life started as unremarkable. His family was not well-off, and after graduating from high school, Shuttlesworth married and became a truck driver and auto-mechanic. He was a religious man, and after prodding by a minister friend, enrolled in Bible College.

He was licensed and ordained in 1948, obtaining degrees from both Selma University and Alabama State College.

Dedicated to civil rights from a young age, Shuttlesworth was, in 1953, the pastor of Bethel Baptish Church in Birmingham, AL and Membership Chair of the Alabama chapter of the NAACP, when legislation was passed to outlaw the group. Showing his stubborn dedication to the movement, Shuttlesworth responded to the law by co-founding the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Later, with the help of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Joseph Lowery and others, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Its mission was to end racism through non-violence.

Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.

Despite his commitment to peace, Shuttlesworth had no misconceptions regarding the explosive violence of the Civil Rights Movement. He knew the danger he faced, and he knew those that did not believe in racial integration had no qualms about using violence to keep the deep south the way it had always been.

This did not lessen his commitment to the cause, and Shuttlesworth made a personal promise to himself and others, proclaiming that his mission was to either “kill segregation or be killed by it”.

Again and again, he proved he meant what he said.

The battle was not an easy one. His home was bombed with 16 pieces of dynamite on Christmas Day in 1956. While his entire family was present, everyone survived without major injury. Shuttlesworth’s determination was perfectly articulated when, after the bombing, as he was emerging from the ruins of his home, a police officer (and Klan-member) said, “If I were you, I’d get out of town as quick as I could”.

Rev. Shuttlesworth scoffed at the notion.

God didn’t save me to run.

It didn’t end there.

The following year, Shuttlesworth was beaten mercilessly with chains and brass knuckles, and his wife was stabbed when the couple attempted to enrolled their children in the previously all-white public school system in Birmingham. Remembering the experience years later, his children recall their father, while still in the hospital, teaching them to forgive their aggressors (one of which was Bobby Frank Cherry, a man who helped orchestrate the famous bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four little girls). The integration attempt, unfortunately, was not successful.

Unsuccessful in killing the man on their own, the KKK ultimately offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could finally do Fred Shuttlesworth in.

The assassination attempts were many; Still, he prevailed.

Systematically, step by step, Fred Shuttlesworth and his supporters- regular, everyday people known as Foot Soldiers- slowly, peacefully, dismantled segregation in the south. They staged sit-ins at diners, organized the now-famous Freedom Rides, and integrated the school system. They were in constant danger, but fear never stopped them.

Beyond the physical violence, Shuttlesworth was jailed more than 24 times. As a result, his name has been on litigation involving the First Amendment, argued in front of the Supreme Court more than any other human in history.

Never once did he waver.

It all paid off.

Humans, in general, throughout the nation are a little more tolerant of each other. We embrace diversity more than ever before. There were many tangible victories- Shuttlesworth and company saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the south is now integrated, and segregation is becoming a thing of the past.

But is it over?

It was with this- the victories, but also the conscious understanding that we still have work to do- that caused our family to pack our bags, load the car, and head 600 miles away to Birmingham when we learned that Shuttlesworth had died. Moved by the death of an icon, spurred forward by the ghosts of not only Fred Shuttlesworth, but of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and all the rest…

We simply had to pay our respects, we found ourselves with no choice but to answer the call to come. It was time to educate our children, and expose them to a living, breathing history that is so much larger than we are.

Arriving eight hours later- in the wee hours of the morning, bleary eyed- our children, our little girls, our black-women-in-training saw a sight they had never before seen:

They saw where they had come from, and for the first time they saw who they are; more importantly, they saw all the reasons why they must do great things.

I drink deeply from a well I did not help dig.

Those are the words of  Congresswoman Terri Sewell, the first black woman to represent Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives, spoken at Rev. Shuttlesworth’s funeral.

How simply brilliant; how magnificently true.

Hearing the greatest of the greats within the Civil Rights Movement speak in honor of Fred Shuttlesworth- Dr. Joseph Lowery, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King, III, Juanita Abernathy, Donnie McClurkin, Dr. Raphael Wornock (pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church- Dr. King’ church in Atlanta, GA), Otis Moss, Jr., and so many others- was life changing.

Even more, it was a call to action.

I witnessed my 13 year old, previously occupied with boys and her social status in middle school, with tears in her eyes. She cried, with the rest of us, over the loss of lives before, during, after and because of the Movement.

She cried for the indignities people of color have suffered throughout history, and she emerged changed, somehow.

Different…

… Aware.

She understands that yes, she too drinks deeply from a well she did not help dig. What she also realizes is that it is not just her privilege to drink deeply from the well, it is her responsibility. She, thanks to the sacrifices of many, does not have to suffer the daily indignities that were so common a few short years ago. She owes it to her ancestors to make an impact, to fight against injustice, just as injustice was fought against before she was born.

After we arrived back home, my daughter immediately got to work. Together we downloaded all the pictures we had taken in Birmingham, both at the funeral and throughout the city, and began to create a slide show.

Choosing the most touching among them, she put an entire presentation together.

I asked if she was doing this for extra-credit at school.

She shook her head, saying she was doing it for a more important reason:

I’m doing it because they need to know.

Indeed.

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2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Measure of a Man: Fred Shuttlesworth

  1. Rev. Shuttlesworth was a force to be reckoned with in Birmingham and throughout the time we call the Civil Rights Era. He spoke the truth to power, and the truth prevailed. His courage inspired — I was about to say, a generation, but from these writings, we should now say generationS — of those who remember the sacrifices and commit their lives to continuing the sacrifice until all are able to participate in The Dream.

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