The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Civil Rights Leader, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Dies

Oct 17, 2011

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died on October 5th of this year. In 2008 the city of Birmingham, Alabama renamed its principle airport Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. That speaks to the vast differences imposed on the Jim Crow South by a mobilized black population led for decades by militants like Shuttlesworth.

Shuttlesworth was active long before 1963, long before the Kennedy’s and other political figures pushed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. forward. He helped direct the NAACP in Birmingham in the early 1950s, at a time when to be active was an invitation for assassins. In 1956, he survived an attack in which sixteen sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his bedroom window. He was arrested 30 to 40 times.

In May of 1956, after the state of Alabama formally outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth helped form the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).

He organized, led and stood in front of many protests. In fact, the day after he survived the explosion that destroyed his house, he led a protest to integrate Birmingham’s buses.

The demonstrations which finally changed things in Birmingham were the ones in 1963. In contrast to many other Civil Rights’ leaders, Shuttlesworth called on the population to confront the police. When people were arrested and filled the jails, he called more people out. “We wanted confrontation, nonviolent confrontation, to see if it would work. We were trying to launch a systematic, wholehearted battle against segregation, which would set the pace for the nation.”

Diane McWhorter said Shuttlesworth “was King’s most effective and insistent foil: blunt where King was soothing, driven where King was leisurely, and most important, confrontational where King was conciliatory – meaning, critically, that he was more upsetting than King in the eyes of the white public.”

The demonstrations that Shuttlesworth led resulted in massive arrests and hundreds of injuries including Shuttlesworth himself. Shuttlesworth never had an illusion that the racists and the state authorities would be non-violent. But he rested on a population ready to mobilize itself in demonstration after demonstration. Those demonstrations finally brought down Bull Conner, most noted for his use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against demonstrators. It was de facto the beginning of the end of Jim Crow in the urban South.

Shuttlesworth fought for civil rights. The renaming of the Birmingham airport is symbolic of the gains won in that fight. But Shuttlesworth was the first to say that much more remained to be done. [See the quotation on this page from Shuttlesworth.]