Fred Shuttlesworth died this past Wednesday morning. Even if you’ve never heard of him, if you are an American, that news means more to you than you might imagine. Separated by a few years, Shuttlesworth and I both grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Separated by race, he negotiated the black side of the color line in the town known as “Bombingham,” while I lived on the other side of the line, in what the white folk called the “city of churches.” That our hometown had such an ironic pair of nicknames was a fact I didn’t know growing up and wouldn’t have understood even if I had. After 30 years of studying race and religion in America, I am still trying to understand such ironies.
Eventually, Shuttlesworth became a Baptist minister on the north side of town, while I studied for the Baptist ministry on the Southside. Along the way, my education brought Rev. Shuttlesworth to my attention as I learned about the civil rights movement that changed America and, at least during a crucial few years, was centered in our hometown.
Like an ancient Israelite prophet, Shuttlesworth repeatedly prodded “Bull” Connor and America’s racists to obey the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling and reject Jim Crow. Shuttlesworth repeatedly pestered Martin Luther King, Jr. to join forces with him and his own organization, and launch a double-barreled nonviolent assault on segregation. Shuttlesworth convinced Martin that if they could defeat segregation in Birmingham, they could defeat it in all of America. It was Shuttlesworth who braved the famous dogs and fire hoses in the 1963 demonstrations. And it was Shuttlesworth’s (not primarily King’s) demonstrations that finally convinced John F. Kennedy that civil rights was, in the president’s own words, a moral issue “as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution.” That conviction led him to introduce into Congress what a year later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that finally sent Jim Crow into exile.
If Shuttlesworth was not ultimately martyred in his quest for racial justice, it was not for lack of trying. Along the way, his courage saw his church bombed three times, landed him in jail some 30 times, got him beaten with bats and bicycle chains at least once, and almost got him drowned in a Klan confrontation at a beach in St. Augustine, Florida.
Later, I would become Shuttlesworth’s biographer. Now I teach my students about a hero whose unsurpassed courage put him in a position to lose life and limb in his efforts to liberate his people from segregation more often than anyone in the black freedom struggle. But his struggles also helped liberate us white people from our centuries-old arrogance that convinced us that our white skin made us a superior race.
Next week I will go to home to Birmingham to say a few words at his memorial service. Here’s what I plan to say there: Throughout his 89 years he carried out the promise uttered by every child in every Sunday School in America: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” With that light he ignited “a fire you can’t put out,” a fire that burned away some of our impurities and left America much brighter and much better than he found it. “Red and yellow, black and white,” we should be grateful for his light, now burning eternally in another country. Thank you, Brother Fred, for lighting your light and helping us inch closer to finding that city “not made with hands, whose builder and maker is God.” Rest in peace, Brother Fred, rest in peace.