Rev. Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth led a war against injustice as a man devoted to civil rights, equality and non-violent action. Shuttlesworth died on Wed. Oct. 5, 2011 leaving a legacy forged by his relentless confrontation to inequality. Fred Shuttlesworth was the last of the civil rights movement’s ‘Big Three.’ With the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
Together they organized protest marches including the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and endured violence directed at their persons and communities. The Selma –Montgomery march became known as “Bloody Sunday,” protestors were violently beaten and tear gassed as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Bloody Sunday” and the Klu Klux Klan’s (KKK) bombing of a Birmingham church where four black girls were killed were among many horrors of the civil rights struggle.
The violence raged on throughout the movement. Christmas night 1956 Shuttlesworth’s home was destroyed by 15 sticks of dynamite, miraculously he escaped unharmed. In 1957 he took his daughters to enroll in an all-white high school in Birmingham where he was met with over a dozen men armed with chains, brass knuckles and baseball bats. During the confrontation his wife, Ruby was stabbed and he was beaten to unconsciousness. Rev. Shuttlesworth filed over 40 civil rights lawsuits to end unequal treatment under the law. Shuttlesworth’s activism along with the non-violent persistent protest of the Civil Rights movement worked to defeat the inhumane brutality of segregationist like Bull Conner, the KKK and George Wallace.
The “Big Three,” moved the non-violent campaign for equality forward. Their work resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. When President J.F. Kennedy introduced the bill that later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told King and Shuttlesworth, “But for Birmingham, we would not be here today.”
In his 1963 book “Why We Can’t Wait,” [Martin Luther] King called Shuttlesworth “one of the nation’s most courageous freedom fighters … a wiry, energetic and indomitable man.”
Shuttlesworth once said he did not expect to live to 40 years old in Birmingham and that everyone expected he would be the first to be killed out of all of the Civil Rights leaders. Shuttlesworth credited his faith in God as the enduring force that enabled him to overcome Birmingham, Alabama, to further the cause of those in Cincinnati, Ohio and to propel the nation to a higher ideal of humanity.
Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader said in a statement on Wednesday. “When others did not have the courage to stand up, speak up and speak out, Fred Shuttlesworth put all he has on the line to end segregation in Birmingham and the state of Alabama.”
Shuttlesworth was honored with numerous awards and recognitions. He founded the Alabama Christian movement for Human Rights. He received the President’s Citizen’s Medal in 2001 from President Bill Clinton. In 2008 the Birmingham Airport Authority Board of Directors renamed the airport Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in honor of his work as a civil rights activist.
Shuttlesworth was preceded in death by his first wife Ruby Shuttlesworth. He is survived by his second wife, Sephira Bailey, five children, 14 grandchildren, 20 great grandchildren, a great grandchild, five sisters and two brothers.
President Obama said Wednesday of the legendary activist: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth today. As one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Reverend Shuttlesworth dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans. 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.”