Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth: A Pastor with Purpose and Passion

On October 5, two very influential men passed away: Steve Jobs who I blogged about last week and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Needless to say, much of the media hype that day went to Steve Jobs, this being a technology crazed culture. But Rev. Shuttlesworth's legacy demands our attention as well. And this being Pastor's Appreciation Month, I think it quite appropriate to honor him here.

Let me start by saying I honestly didn't know a lot about Rev. Shuttlesworth. I was familiar with his name, and I knew he was strategic in the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to his death, however, I couldn't have listed three facts about him. Well, I decided to remedy that. As a result of my research, hopefully some of you may learn a little more about him as well.

Rev. Shuttlesworth, born March 18, 1922, was both a minister in Birmingham, Alabama and a Civil Rights activist. He became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953.

1956 proved to be a memorable year for Shuttlesworth. That year he was named Membership Chairman of the Alabama state chapter of the NAACP. Later that same year the state of Alabama outlawed the NAACP from operating within the state. Undeterred in his mission to fight for civil rights, he helped establish the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, created to continue the NAACP's work in Alabama.

On Christmas Day of that year he faced the first major threat on his life when a group of unidentified perpetrators attempted to kill him by placing sixteen sticks of dynamite under his bedroom window. He miraculously escaped unharmed, while his house suffered major damage. When a police officer, also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, advised Shuttlesworth with the threat: "if I were you I'd get out of town as quick as I could," the reverend stood firm. He told the officer to tell the Klan that he would not leave and stated, "I wasn't saved to run."

Proof that he wouldn't be running: the next day he led a group that integrated Birmingham's buses, then sued after the police arrested twenty-one of those passengers.

In 1957, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rev. Ralph Abernathy; and a few other Civil Rights leaders. During his time with SCLC, he accomplished much:
  •  He participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in 1960
  •  He worked with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize the Freedom Rides in 1961
  •  After the brutal beatings of Freedom Riders in Alabama, he sent some of his church deacons to collect the injured Riders. Those Riders were delivered to Shuttlesworth's church, Bethel Baptist, to recuperate.
  • He participated in numerous marches and campaigns against segregation
  • He joined the March from Selma to Montgomery that let to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Though combative, headstrong and blunt at times, Shuttlesworth nonetheless commanded respect amongst colleagues and opponents. Diane Nash, a student activist and leader of a second wave of Freedom Riders, has stated, "Fred was practically a legend... He would not back down, and you could count on it. He would not sell out, you could count on that."

To communicate its nonviolent approach to civil rights, the SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed." Yet, the hair on Shuttlesworth's head was continually threatened. In 1957, after attempting to enroll his children in an all-white public school in Birmingham, a mob of Klansmen attacked him and his wife. The mob, which included Bobby Frank Cherry, an assailant in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, beat him with chains and brass knuckles and stabbed his wife. Miraculously, they both survived. And in 1958, he survived another attempt on his life -- this time through an attempted bombing.

In his later years, he continued his work of helping others and fighting for equality. He founded the "Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation" in 1988 to assist low-income families in purchasing homes. In 1998, he become a supporter of the Birmingham Pledge, committed to combating racism and prejudice. In 2001, President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Citizens Medal.
He gave his final sermon in 2006 at the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinati, Ohio, which he had founded. And in 2008, the Birmingham, Alabama Airport Authority approved changing the name of Birmingham's airport to "Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport."

Last week, members of Congress delivered speeches commemorating the life and legacy of Rev. Shuttlesworth. After hearing of his passing, President Obama said, "He was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. And today we stand on his shoulders, and the shoulders of all those who marched and sat and lifted their voices to help perfect our union... America owes Rev. Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude."

Well said, Mr. President. Well said.

Standing for Justice and Mercy,


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