Not to detract from the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in the American Civil Rights Movement, but it is important to note, especially on this day, that behind every great leader are a host of others, named and unnamed, who give power to a movement of justice. One such leader in the Civil Rights Movement was Pastor Fred Shuttlesworth.
While I am no scholar of the American Civil Rights movement, I do believe there would be great unanimity in saying that Birmingham was the turning point of this great movement of equality. It was there Dr. King was jailed for eight days and wrote his masterful "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". It was there that racist police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Conner unleashed his dogs and his thugs and his high pressure water hoses on peaceful marchers and children in Kelly Ingram Park. After the smoke from Birmingham cleared, the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And at the heart of Birmingham was the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth. Georgia Representative John Lewis called Shuttlesworth "the soul and heart of the Birmingham movement."
Indeed, while King and others experienced only temporarily the horrible abuse of "Bull" Conner and Alabama’s extreme and violent racism, Pastor Shuttlesworth lived it. Black homes and churches were regularly bombed for nearly a decade before the famous march on Birmingham. In 1955, he led a delegation petitioning the city for black police officers. In 1957, he attempted to enroll his daughters in the all white high school. He was beaten with brass knuckles and bicycle chains. When the doctor wondered aloud that he wasn’t in worse condition, Shuttlesworth said, 'Well, doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head." And it was Shuttlesworth who persuaded King to bring his movement to Birmingham, where history would be changed.
What Shuttlesworth had was a deep and abiding faith in God. And he trusted Him at every obstacle and act of injustice.
While Dr. King is the rightfully acknowledged leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he is not alone in making sacrifices that changed our nation.
Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth
March 18, 1922 -- October 5, 2011