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Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies

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Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies


Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Melissa Block. A pioneer of the civil rights movement died today: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Alabama. He was 89. Reverend Shuttlesworth led Birmingham's movement against segregation. NPR's Debbie Elliott tells us more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: As Birmingham goes, so goes the nation. That belief was the driving force behind Fred Shuttlesworth's crusade for equality.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: He was the soul and heart of the Birmingham movement.

ELLIOTT: Civil rights veteran, Georgia congressman John Lewis. He says it was Birmingham that brought the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

LEWIS: Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in. He led an unbelievable children's crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs that moved and shook the nation.


ELLIOTT: A decade before that infamous standoff between authorities and young protesters in Kelly Ingram Park, Shuttlesworth was already pushing for change in what had come to be called Bombingham. Dozens of black homes and churches were bombed, the cases rarely investigated by the city's all white police force.

In 1955, the charismatic young pastor of Bethel Baptist Church led a delegation of ministers who petitioned for black police officers.

Historian Horace Huntley of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute says Shuttlesworth personally challenged just about every segregated institution in the city, from schools and parks to buses, even the waiting room at the train station.

HORACE HUNTLEY: And, of course, they had a white section and what we termed then a colored section. Fred and his wife bought tickets and they sat in the white section. That was revolutionary for Birmingham of the 1950s.

ELLIOTT: When an Alabama judge outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth founded a new organization: the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. A year later, he helped created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The activities came with a price. He was repeatedly jailed. His home and church were bombed. But Shuttlesworth didn't back down. Here's what he told the documentary "Eyes on the Prize."


REVEREND FRED SHUTTLESWORTH: Instead of running away from the blasts and running away from the Klansmen, I said to the Klansman police that came - he said, Reverend, if I were you, I'd get out of town as fast as I could. I said, officer, you are not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could keep me through this, then I'm here for the duration.

ELLIOTT: Another close call came at the hands of a mob in 1957 when he tried to enroll his daughters in an all-white high school.


ELLIOTT: Reverend Shuttlesworth recalled the attack in this 1987 interview with NPR's Susan Stamberg.


SHUTTLESWORTH: They really thought that if they killed me - the Klansmen did - that the movement would stop because I remember they were saying: this is the leader. Let's get this SOB. If we kill him, it'll all be over.

ELLIOTT: After being struck with brass knuckles and bicycle chains, Shuttlesworth said the doctor was amazed he wasn't in worse shape.


SHUTTLESWORTH: I said, well, doctor, the Lord knew that I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.

ELLIOTT: And it was on display every time he went head-to-head with Birmingham's racist police commissioner, Bull Connor. Historian Horace Huntley.

HUNTLEY: He would lead demonstrations and he would call Bull Connor and say to him, Bull, tomorrow morning at 10:30, I will be on the corner of 19th Street and 2nd Avenue. If you want to be a part of history, be there.

ELLIOTT: A 1961 documentary called Shuttlesworth the man most feared by Southern racists. It was Shuttlesworth who asked Attorney General Robert Kennedy to protect freedom riders and the last thing Bull Connor wanted was federal intervention.


BULL CONNOR: You know those Kennedys up there in Washington, that little old Bobby Socks and his brother the president - they'd give anything in the world if we had some trouble here.

ELLIOTT: And trouble was coming. Shuttlesworth was laying the groundwork for something bigger. In 1963, he persuaded Martin Luther King to bring the civil rights movement to Birmingham after a dispirited campaign in Albany, Georgia. Shuttlesworth told "Eyes on the Prize" he thought Birmingham could make a difference.


SHUTTLESWORTH: I said, I assure you, if you come to Birmingham, this movement can not only gain prestige, but really shake the country.

ELLIOTT: He was right. Prophetic, some said. King launched Project C, for confrontation.



ELLIOTT: Bull Connor unleashed police dogs and turned fire hoses on the young demonstrators. When that didn't turn them back, he put them behind bars. More than 2,500 people were jailed, including the children. The shocking images appeared on the nightly news. President Kennedy declared the struggle for civil rights a moral issue.

All the time, the fiery Reverend Shuttlesworth kept his troops rallied for the cause.


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 yesterday, we filled - the day before yesterday, we filled up the jails. And then today, we filled up the jail yard.


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


SHUTTLESWORTH: (Singing) I ain't a-scared of your jail because I want my freedom. I want my freedom. I want my freedom. I ain't a-scared of your jail because I want my freedom. I want my freedom now.

ELLIOTT: Fred Shuttlesworth's tactics were controversial. He often pressed King for stronger action at SCLC meetings and he did not have the full support of Birmingham's black community. Some thought King's presence was a setback for race relations.

During the height of the struggle, Shuttlesworth took a new pastorate in Cincinnati and moved his family there, but for years he traveled back to Birmingham to lead demonstrations and he pressed for racial justice in Cincinnati well into the 1970s.

Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham in 2008 after suffering a stroke and was being cared for in a nursing home. One of his last public appearances was at a local celebration of President Barack Obama's inauguration called "Where History Meets Hope."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We get to live free here today because of the work of this man. We celebrate the election of our president because of the work of this man. Give this man the honor he deserves.

ELLIOTT: Reverend Shuttlesworth came out in a wheelchair, a small American flag tucked into his breast pocket, too frail to speak. The city of Birmingham plans to include his burial site on its Civil Rights Trail. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.


SHUTTLESWORTH: (Singing) I want my freedom now. Gonna' be a registered voter because I want my - because I want my - because I want my - I'm gonna' be a registered voter because I want my - I want my freedom now.

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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