There was another time when peaceful demonstrators were routinely attacked by police, at a level of brutality unfathomable to modern sensibilities.
Fire hoses were aimed at demonstrators to prevent them from marching.
Attack dogs were used against children and teenagers.
And with the blind eye of law enforcement turned away (or, sometimes, under the direct orders of public safety officials), bombs were planted at churches.
During this time, there was one man who led the crusade in Birmingham to end this injustice. He suffered beatings and bombings, attacks and arrests. He preached justice and righteousness and suffered mightily for it, until the day he won.
His name was Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and he died yesterday.
Modern students may be forgiven for thinking of the Civil Rights Movement as having a simplistic model: Dr. King called on people to act nonviolently, they did, and laws were changed. This is how the Movement is presented to schoolchildren across the country, with a messianic figure leading the masses to freedom like Moses with the Israelites.
The truth, as always, is more nuanced and complex. The Movement wasn't centralized like many today believe. It sprung up in communities across the South in response to local pressures and conditions, and when local campaigns reached critical mass they were linked by King and others into a wider campaign against oppression. But for most communities, local ministers were the driving forces of change, and the generals of the nonviolent army that won the day. (Indeed, Dr. King got his start leading a local boycott in Montgomery that had relatively modest goals at the outset.)
There was no battleground more treacherous and violent than "Bombingham", Alabama. There was no foe of freedom more ruthless and brutal than Birmingham's Public Safety Commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor. And there was no general more determined or passionate than the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
“I think God created Fred Shuttlesworth to take on people like Bull Connor. He was one of the most courageous men that I have ever known. I don’t know of anyone else that could have led the movement in Birmingham.”
-Rev. Joseph Lowery, October 5, 2011
It may have all started when they wouldn't let him register to vote. When Rev. Shuttlesworth went to take up his pulpit in Birmingham and tried to change his voting registration to Jefferson County, the local registrar told him, "Boy, I don't think I want you to register right now," and sent him away. Stirred, Shuttlesworth began urging his congregation to join the NAACP's registration efforts, going so far as to post on the church wall lists of eligible congregants who hadn't yet registered, and even calling specific parishioners out during services. "I don't want folks here wearing the carpet out [kneeling], saying a lot of lectures to the Lord, when you won't get up and go vote," he'd tell church deacons.
Then came police beatings. In late 1954, a black man who was arrested for arguing over a parking space was beaten mercilessly while in jail, but the city commission refused to allow the then-commissioner of public safety, Bob Lindbergh, to fire the officers who administered the beating. This led Shuttlesworth and other local leaders to petition the city to hire black police officers. He wrote the petition in early 1955, and the other black clergy of the city elected him to lead the group to deliver it. It was a responsibility of leadership that he never relinquished.
"I waited a week to see Shuttlesworth get hit with a hose. Damn, I'm sorry I wasn't around to see it! It must have been funny as hell....I wish they'd carried him off in a hearse [instead of an ambulance]."
-Bull Connor, May 7, 1963
The first time they tried to blow up Fred Shuttlesworth was with a bomb of between six and sixteen sticks of dynamite that detonated about three feet from his head. Shuttlesworth was lying in bed on Christmas Eve, 1956, when the bomb was thrown at the corner of the Bethel parsonage that housed his bedroom. The blast shot fire through his room and under his bed, the force being hindered only by his mattress. Shuttlesworth was thrown clear of the bed by the blast, just in time to avoid being crushed to death as the ceiling gave way and a rafter crashed into his bed, reducing it to splinters and cinders.
His neighbors--many of them his parishoners--rushed to the scene. Some came armed, causing tension when police and firemen arrived. The blast shattered windows for blocks. Nobody expected that Fred Shuttlesworth would emerge with no injury worse than a bumped head, and once that miracle sank in, they certainly couldn't have expected him to deliver an impromptu sermon on nonviolence, admonishing those who brought guns to "Put those guns up. That's not what we are about. We are going to love out enemies. Go home and put the guns away...We don't need that. We're not going to be violent."
That bomb lit a fire in Bethel. The fire burned so brightly that it wasn't a year and a half before the next bomb was planted at the parsonage.
"I offer myself--my life--to lead as God directs. My family and I--and Bethel Church--have tasted the bitterest dregs of the vile cup of segregation. But from the pitch black terrors we have learned a faith which cannot be conquered."
-Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, "A Faith for Difficult and Critical Times," 1957
The second bomb meant to kill Rev. Shuttlesworth had a special pedigree attached to it. The bomber was a notorious white supremacist named Jesse Benjamin Stoner, known as J.B. The noxious Mr. Stoner wouldn't be convicted until 1980, and spent several years after that out of jail on appeal and as a fugitive. To my knowledge, he was the first to utter the phrase "Praise God for AIDS!" on television, decades before the bigots of Westboro Baptist, because he thought it was only killing "Jews, ni**ers and sodomites." Between the bombing and his eventual conviction, Stoner founded and ran the National States' Rights Party (best thought of as the political arm of the KKK), stood as the most racist Democratic candidate ever in numerous statewide races in Georgia, and--in what can only be considered a sly attempt to win on a theory of ineffective assistance of counsel--represented James Earl Ray in his trial for the murder of Dr. King. (In addition to his crimes against humanity, he also committed constant crimes against fashion, wearing an oversized bow tie and carrying a small rebel flag in his breast pocket.) He was also considered a suspect in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and the assassination of Dr. King.
In June of 1958, Bull Connor had had enough. Having earlier lost his office due to a sex scandal, Connor had managed to squeeze his way back into office during the most recent election. What happened next is a difficult story to sift through: either Connor failed spectacularly in a sting operation meant to catch J.B. Stoner (who was suspected of being behind the rash of bombings throughout the south, including a failed attempt to destroy Temple Beth-El in Birmingham with over 50 sticks of dynamite) and ended up enticing and subsidizing him in bombing Bethel Church, or Connor had two of his detectives orchestrate the bombing in an attempt to eliminate Shuttlesworth. What's known for certain is that, with his knowledge, two of Connor's detectives met with Stoner, offered him $2000 to bomb Bethel Church, and didn't prevent the bomb from being set. One of the volunteer guards at the church--put in place after the last attempt on Shuttlesworth's life--was, by coincidence, familiar with explosives, having been a mine worker in his younger days. The sixty-three year-old guard, Will Hall, grabbed the five-gallon paint can that had a sputtering fuse sticking out of it and, as it singed his arm, ran it to the middle of the street, barely getting himself outside the blast radius before it exploded.
When Rev. Shuttlesworth notified the authorities, the first two officers on the scene were Connor's detectives who had instigated the whole attack. The police--knowing full well who was responsible--tried to blame the attack on Hall and the woman who first spotted the bomb. Both submitted to polygraphs and easily passed, as did six others at the scene. The actual culprits would evade justice for the next 22 years.
"Birmingham must wake up and join the rest of the world. We have been in this fight for seven long years, and we don't intend to quit now. Twenty-five people came to me this morning and said, 'Here's my body.' I told them unless you are ready to go to jail and give your body and your soul to our movement, then go home. What did they do? They went to jail."
-Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, April 3, 1963.
School segregation was probably the most deeply dug trench of the white racists in the south. Birmingham in the late 1950s was not only an example of this, but perhaps the quintessential one, as Fred Shuttlesworth and his family discovered.
When Brown v. Board of Education was handed down, Alabama took whatever measures it could to delay its effects. The easiest trick the state legislature found was to simply push the fight to a hundred different jurisdictions by giving local superintendents discretion as to where students should be assigned. Challenging this, Shuttlesworth and several other families petitioned to have their children assigned to the schools nearest their homes. In the case of the Shuttlesworths, that meant trying to enroll his daughters at the all-white Phillips High School.
After a lengthy petition process and numerous attempts to obtain enrollment, Rev. Shuttlesworth told his family and several close allies that he intended to register his daughters at Phillips the next day. That morning, September 9th, 1957, Shuttlesworth notified the press and Commissioner Lindbergh that he would be taking his daughters to Phillips. His wife, Ruby, refused to be left behind, and came with. When they reached the school, they were met by cameras, very few policemen, and an armed mob wielding chains, bats, and brass knuckles.
Rev. Shuttlesworth walked out of the car. The mob gave chase.
What followed is a complicated melee, the details of while I will spare you. Suffice it to say, Fred was beaten within an inch of his life as police looked on, Ruby was stabbed by an assailant with a knife, and their daughter, Ricky, suffered an ankle injury when her foot was slammed in the car door as she tried to exit.
That night, at the congregation's regular Monday meeting, he appeared with his right arm in a sling, looking unbowed, and once again urged nonviolence. He told the crowd, "Now I want everybody to be calm. It happened to me; it didn't happen to you. And if I'm not mad, I don't see why you should get mad. I don't want any violence...God is showing the world that there are some Negroes in Birmingham who are not afraid."
Rev. Shuttlesworth later positively identified his attackers in court. The grand jury refused to indict any of them.
"We in Atlanta have come to the aid of Fred Shuttlesworth. He called on us, and we were glad to come...."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1963
The coverage of Rev. Shuttlesworth's life that we'll see in the next few days will doubtlessly focus on April and May of 1963. "Project C" (for "confrontation"), sometimes called the "Children's Crusade," was a combined effort of Shuttlesworth's local activists and Dr. King's organizational savvy (with the caveat that King's organizers most always tended to defer to Shuttlesworth's suggestions about how to proceed).
Bull Connor had just been defeated in his run for Mayor of Birmingham, and was now a lame-duck and, due largely to his long train of abuses in office, the last person who would hold the position of public safety commissioner, as the city's electorate voted to fundamentally change the structure of local government. But even without a future in city office (he would, tragically, soon be elected to statewide office), Bull Connor had a lot of things going for him: he had a racist governor who would let him act as he saw fit, a city government largely unable to do anything to hold him back, a police force filled with vehement and murderous racists, a fire department eager to fight the fires of integration, and a tank.
Rather than go into the details of that amazing campaign, when both the finest examples of American courage and the worst examples of American hatred were on full display, I'll just tell the story of May 7th, when the dogs were let loose, the hoses were turned on, and the jails were filled past capacity, all in a futile attempt to stop Birmingham's integration.
The first march of the day went out earlier than usual: police had gotten used to a regular routine of protests since Dr. King had answered Fred Shuttlesworth's call. Joining King and the SCLC contingent were members of SNCC, including James Forman and Dorothy Cotton, who were helping to organize the local youths in demonstrations. The mayor, an ostensible moderate who felt betrayed by the demonstrations being called against his city, was reluctant to assist the marchers by restraining Connor in the press or in an official capacity. The earlier marchers were mostly organized by SNCC, and had taunted police and riled Connor's forces more than usual. Rocks were thrown. A motorcycle cop flipped his bike. The situation was tense.
Shuttlesworth was in the middle of it. After the initial police action was mostly quelled and Drs. King and Abernathy had been taken on a tour of the battlefield, Shuttlesworth went to mission control--the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church--and prepared the next wave of marchers.
This second crowd was not as disciplined or orderly. The two thousand or so marchers were confronted by about 300 police and firemen, as well as attack dogs, fire hoses, and truncheons. Some of the marchers began pelting police with rocks and, as Shuttleworth and other senior figures tried to stop the crowd from turning violent, the police began their attack, and a riot ensued.
During the commotion, a squad of firefighters with a hose were dousing the crowd when one noticed Shuttlesworth and called out, "Hey, let's put some water on the Reverend!" The blast knocked Shuttlesworth to the ground and rolled him hard into the wall of Sixteenth Street. He could have easily been killed had James Orange--another civil rights legend and southern minister but, at the time, just a very large and powerful member of the Movement--not pulled him to safety. Once again, Fred Shuttlesworth was hospitalized for his injuries, this time doped up to keep him from returning to the fray.
The images of that fire hose, those dogs, and that brutality all shocked the conscience of America so deeply that they are regularly cited as major factors in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"Under no circumstances would we let the Ku Klux Klan, the police, or the courts stop this Movement."
-Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
So while the world laments the passing of a corporate giant, the decisions of two potential Presidential non-candidates, and the fate of this year's NBA season, let's bear in mind that there is a huge gap left in the fabric of our nation today, as one of the greatest heroes of the greatest movements in American history leaves us forever. Mercifully, his legacy will endure.
These are just a few of the battles that Fred Shuttlesworth faced during his remarkable life. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy of the excellent biography by Andrew A. Manis, A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, as well as Diane McWhorter's Pulitzer Prize-winning record of the Birmingham Civil Rights movement, Carry Me Home.