#2 of my top 25 Alabamians.

2. FRED SHUTTLESWORTH

The boy who became the man known as Fred Shuttlesworth grew up under the rigid system of segregation, which used skin color to determine the value and honor accorded a human being. Segregation served as both a political and an economic way in which to preserve the heavy hierarchies of southern society. Most people fail to question the ugliness of an official policy; once something gains the status of law, the majority tends to comply.

As a high school student in Birmingham, Shuttlesworth complied. Like the vast majority of Alabamians living under segregation, he assumed that segregation was the only possibility, the only way things could be. After getting married in 1941, Shuttlesworth relocated to Mobile where he worked at Brookley air force base. In an interview with Bud and Ruth Schultz, Shuttlesworth described how the initial seed of activism was planted in his mind:

Around 1954, the year when the US Supreme Court reversed the Dred Scott decision which legalized segregation, Shuttlesworth was elected Membership Chairman of the NAACP. He remembers the time as one of hope, in which the law of the land suddenly paved a path for equality. In an interview twenty years later, Shuttlesworth looked back on the times:

The year 1956 strengthened his growing resolve. In May 1956, Alabama outlawed the NAACP while Shuttlesworth was still serving in his position as Membership Chairman. Shocked by the popularity and effectiveness of the Montgomery bus boycott, Alabama officials ignored the fact that the NAACP did not start the protest. In their panic, officials thought that outlawing the NAACP would, in Shuttlesworth’s words, “kill the drive for freedom”. The appetite for equality in a country that called itself “the land of liberty” was not going away. But Shuttlesworth understood that the strategy of the white supremacists would not work:

Meanwhile, people debated what they could do. A couple of days passed; the debates and strategies continued. Shuttlesworth recalls how a plan finally took shape:

At the end of the year, the Ku Klux Klan brought their policy of terrorism closer to the bone. Shuttlesworth explained:

This personal encounter with the Klan’s policy of bombing homes and churches did not have it’s intended effect. In Birmingham, terrorism against blacks failed to scare them into submission. Shuttlesworth describes how surviving the bomb blast fueled his convictions:

The NAACP board wanted Shuttlesworth to pause, pull back, and lay low as they dealt with the KKK bomb’s implication for the movement strategy. But Shuttlesworth insisted on continuing with the plans for the Birmingham desegregated bus rides. “There’s nothing to think out,” he told them. “We said we’re going to ride and we ride- we do what we say for a change.” So they rode the buses and over 250 people got arrested.

And so Shuttlesworth traded the fripperies of a middle-class life for the mold and mausoleum of the American jail. It was to be a common station in the journey of many civil rights activists. His activism resulted in his May 1961 arrest for a Freedom Riders protest (along with reverends William Sloane Coffin, Ralph Abernathy, and Wyatt Tee Walker). Shuttlesworth’s mug shot from that arrest is seen above, thanks to The Smoking Gun.

Among his many accomplishments, Shuttlesworth helped organize the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which ended in the notorious bloody confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The notoriety comes from the horror and tragedy of this event, which made it impossible to continue doubting whether institutionalized white power was, indeed, a “harmless” affair.

Civil Rights Movement veteran Charlie Cobb recalls Shuttlesworth’s courage and determination:

During his lifetime Shuttlesworth survived two bombings, dozens of arrests, and a number of police beatings that left him hospitalized. He brought many law-abiding, middle class blacks into the movement through his establishment of the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights.

His participation and leadership during the march from Selma to Montgomery helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shuttlesworth’s participation in St. Augustine during their violent Civil Rights marches and Beach wade-ins helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Teaching the next generation

An extensive collection of Shuttlesworth’s speeches and letters is housed at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. It is a must-see for families and homeschoolers in Alabama. You can also make use of this printable I created for Max about Shuttlesworth. It includes a primary source analysis activity based on a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. to Shuttlesworth.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth: Amazing Alabamians (PDF)

Other resources

Shuttlesworth archives (The King Center)
Shuttlesworth Humanitarian Award
“The world is my pulpit” (A video interview with Fred Shuttlesworth)
Interview circa 1985 with Fred Shuttlesworth (Eyes on the Prize)
Shuttlesworth as remembered by others (Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement)
Gov. Bentley’s remarks at Shuttlesworth’s homegoing ceremony (Office of the Governor)
“Rep. Lewis gives a fiery tribute at Shuttlesworth funeral” (The Raw Story)
Dan Warren and Fred Shuttlesworth obits (The Economist)