We lost something last week, someone really great. We won’t be able to go to the store and replace what he gave to the world. While the loss of Steve Jobs was a blow, someone will quickly replace his ingenuity.
But people like Fred Shuttlesworth cannot be replaced.
Shuttlesworth never totally got his due as one of the icons and main movers and shakers of the Civil Rights Movement, primarily because he wasn’t martyred for the cause. But as his biographer has said, “It wasn’t for his lack of trying.”
Andrew Manis, author of A Fire You Can’t Put Out, said, “There was not a person in the Civil Rights Movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”
Shuttlesworth was one of the original “crazy ni****s.” That was the title given to Black folks during slavery and Jim Crow segregation who had the nerve to fight, to resist, to say no. And make no mistake: Crazy ni****s were feared by the slave owners and the racists because they knew what all oppressors know, and that is resistance is contagious.
A 1961 CBS documentary at the time reported that Shuttlesworth “was the man most feared by Southern racists.” That may have been because he challenged Jim Crow everywhere — schools, parks, buses, even waiting rooms.
After the NAACP was outlawed in Alabama by the Alabama Supreme Court, Shuttlesworth formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. The title suggests that he was ahead of his time in seeing the struggle as not just for civil rights, but for human rights as well. While challenging Jim Crow in Birmingham, his house was bombed on Christmas Day in 1956.
When a Birmingham Klansman who was also a cop suggested that Shuttlesworth leave town after the bombing, which blew up his bed but not him, he said, “I didn’t get saved [from the bomb] to run.”
Shuttlesworth was one of the driving forces and original founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The impatient leader drove his comrades crazy with his insistence that they not wait.
In an interview a several years ago, he said about Martin Luther King, Jr., ”He was sometimes slow in doing things. Too slow for me. He’d meditate on things a lot and agonize over them. I think if things need doing, be about them.”
He was our Patton, always insisting that we take the initiative. Like Patton he was impatient, sometimes abrasive, blunt, driven by a singleness of purpose, prone to say exactly what was on his mind, yet absolutely determined to win the fight.
His style was to provoke the enemy into making mistakes and then use their errors against them. According to those who were there, Shuttlesworth would call “Bull” Connor, Birmingham, Alabama’s Commissioner of Public Safety, and tell him where he planned on protesting.
The historians note that it was Shuttlesworth who saw Birmingham as the key to breaking the back of official de jure segregation, not just in Birmingham but in the nation. He wrote letters to King insisting as early as 1959 that he come to Birmingham and that the SCLC put its focus there. He kept it up until King finally agreed.
He antagonized “Bull” Connor, ensuring that Connor would always be the irrational racist and thus demonstrating to the world the absolute insanity of racism and racist oppression. “Confrontation is not bad,” said the civil rights leader. “Goodness is supposed to confront evil.”
What Shuttlesworth meant can’t be measured in money or commodities. His contribution in fact is immeasurable, because even now he touches the human spirit. What he brought about is worth more than all the iPods and laptops in the world.
He showed a whole race of people that it could stand up. He showed a nation that something has to be gravely wrong with treating Black people like animals or second-class citizens.
You had to pay attention because he was willing to die to change it, to resist it, to make his point. He refused to back down or give in. He believed in equality for all, and he put his life on the line to get it.
He literally said, “Follow me,” and folks in Birmingham and the civil rights workers had to follow a man who was bombed but kept coming, who was beaten with bicycle chains but kept coming, who was bruised by water hoses but kept coming.
He even got the attention of the folks sitting on the sidelines: If a man is willing to give up his life — all that he has — we ought to pay attention to him.
Ultimately, what Shuttlesworth left us with was the importance of having the courage of one’s convictions. In today’s world, some of our leaders in the Black community have correctly analyzed the problems we are experiencing but don’t have the courage to go where their analysis takes them.
Shuttlesworth was quoted in the documentary series Eyes on the Prize saying, “Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide. Ballplayers don’t strike themselves out. You’ve got to take them out.”
What we learn from this old country preacher is that if something is wrong, fix it. If the system doesn’t work, have the guts, the intestinal fortitude, the courage to change it.