Civil Rights Hero Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth Dies

Michel Martin continues her conversation with talk show host Tavis Smiley, who recently finished his 18-city 'poverty tour.' They reflect on the life of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who died Wednesday at age 89. Rev. Shuttlesworth co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in his fight for civil rights braved beatings and the bombing of his home.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll look at the legacy of Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs.

But first, we've asked the public media personality Tavis Smiley to stay with us. Earlier in the program, he was talking about a new series airing tomorrow aimed at highlighting the struggles of America's poor.

Now we want to ask him to take a few minutes to remember one of the towering figures of the civil rights movement, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. He passed away this week at the age of 89 and as we said earlier, he was lauded by his fellow activists, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for his personal courage in pursuing nonviolent resistance in some of the most segregated, most violent and most dangerous places in the South.

I'll just play a short clip of an interview between Mr. Smiley and Reverend Shuttlesworth where he talks about the danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

REVEREND FRED SHUTTLESWORTH: You must remember, we realized that death was there. We would sing and pray in the movement. The church would preach and then go out to face the dogs and the fire hose, knowing that they were there, knowing that we could get hurt, knowing that each march or any march could be our last march.

MARTIN: He sounds like such a mild mannered person and yet he was renowned, you know, for his physical courage, endured so much.

Tell us, if you would, just some of your recollections of him.

TAVIS SMILEY: Sure. A few things in no particular order. One, he was a historic and heroic individual. He lived a historic and heroic life, although for many, the name Fred Shuttlesworth might not resonate the way that Martin King or John Lewis or Harry Belafonte or other names might jump out. So he was unheralded and unsung, although he was historic and heroic in the life that he lived.

And the thing that always got me was that he was at ground zero of the movement all throughout the South, of course, and for that matter, the North. Black folk, negroes, colored folk were being disrespected. But he was in Birmingham and you recall, Michel, that Birmingham was so bad then that they called it Bombingham. This is the city where those four little girls were brutally murdered in that 16th Street Baptist Church.

Bombingham is the epicenter of the movement, really ground zero, and in that particular environment, the courage that he had to stand in his truth, to take those beatings and to do so with nonviolent resistance and then go on to help start SCLC with Dr. King, the only organization that King founded in his life. Shuttlesworth was right next to Dr. King when they started the organization.

He is an American icon of the highest order. It's just a shame, a tragedy, that more people don't know his name, but sometimes, in death, people really get a chance to appreciate what you did in life. And so I hope that more people will now Google the name Fred Shuttlesworth and learn more about what he did to make American democracy real.

MARTIN: Let's help people get started on that by playing a bit of tape that we were fortunate to find of him speaking in Birmingham in 1963. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SHUTTLESWORTH: And all we've got to do is to keep marching. Do tomorrow what we did today and do it the next day and then the next day, we won't have to do it at all because the day before yesterday, we filled up the jails. And then today, we filled up the jail yard.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHUTTLESWORTH: And on the morrow, when they look up and see that number coming, I don't know what they're going to do.

MARTIN: Did you ever, Tavis, discover from him the source of his strength and fortitude in the face of so much? It's just very hard to overstate how much he and, frankly, his family endured through the course of this.

SMILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because it's kind of lost to the sands of time, that kind of thing. But just not knowing, whether every time you stepped out of your house, whether that day would be your last. And also knowing that you were exposing your family to great risk and danger. Did you ever understand from him what was it that kept him going when he, as you heard, was the one that kept so many other people going?

SMILEY: It's a powerful question and a poignant question. I think there's a reason why we refer to him as the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. He had an abiding faith. One of my favorite Bible verses says that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, of power and of a sound mind. That's what he had. He was not frozen by his fear, but that love, that power and that sound mind that he possessed allowed him to take on the dogs and the hoses and the batons and the jail cells in the way that he did.

And I think what you hear Fred Shuttlesworth saying in that clip is that courage is contagious. Courage is contagious and we do this day in and day out and other folks start to see this. You heard him expressing that the numbers will grow. So it's a reminder, even in these difficult times that we live, for those who are interested in trying to be consistent to some kind of truth, even though folk don't get what you're trying to say in the moment. Courage can be contagious, but you've got to be committed to it.

MARTIN: Tavis Smiley speaking about the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who died yesterday, Wednesday, at the age of 89. Tavis Smiley is the host of "The Tavis Smiley Show" on Public Radio International and "Tavis Smiley" on PBS television.

Tomorrow, he will kick off his weeklong special "The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience." It starts with a roundtable discussion on "The Tavis Smiley Show." He was kind enough to join us from the Sheryl Flowers Radio Studio in Los Angeles.

Tavis Smiley, thanks so much for joining us.

SMILEY: As always, thanks, Michel.

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