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Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth passed away this Wednesday at the age of 89. Don’t know who Fred Shuttlesworth was? Maybe you, like many who were too young to experience or remember it themselves, know only a smattering of names from the modern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and his isn’t quite as well known as others. The list of people as central to the movement as Shuttlesworth is very short.

Born in 1922 in rural Alabama, Shuttlesworth was raised by his mother and stepfather, a farmer. After working as a truck driver during World War II, he believed that he had been called to be a minister and studied first at Cedar Grove Bible College and then at Selma University before graduating from Alabama State College in 1952. He became the pastor of Selma’s First Baptist Church but quickly moved to Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church, and it would be in Birmingham that Shuttlesworth rose to prominence. In Birmingham, he participated in the NAACP’s voter registration activities and then founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights when the state effectively banned the NAACP’s activities. He and other leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Although Shuttlesworth concentrated many of his efforts in Birmingham, he also supported civil rights activities like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He pressured other civil rights leaders to act in what would become the pivotal demonstrations of the mid-1960s that propelled forward the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). Shuttlesworth’s activities drew the ire of Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, who campaigned on a platform of enforcing segregation. Shuttlesworth experienced bombings at his home and church as well as beatings and intimidation.

Even though Shuttlesworth eventually left Birmingham to assume the pastorship of a Baptist church in Cincinnati, he never lost touch with his roots. He returned frequently to the south to participate in civil rights actions even as he worked for justice and equality in his new Ohio home.

I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Museum, which Shuttlesworth helped to create, and photographed this statue of him.

Fred Shuttlesworth

I had the honor of meeting Rev. Shuttlesworth about 10 years ago, just for a few moments. My graduate advisor had invited him to speak to her class on the history of race relations in the U.S., and she motioned me into the room to meet him. He was, at the time, about 79 or 80, and he was not a physically large man, but he was fiery and passionate. Of course, one of the things he wanted me to understand was that the activists were not gods but imperfect men and women who felt compelled to act by their belief in justice and equality informed by their religious convictions. Shuttlesworth knew that not everyone in the civil rights movement agreed with him or even liked him (and vice versa), but they still managed to work together to change the world in which they lived. He made a distinct impression on me in those few moments, and I recognized even then what a rare privilege it was to meet with someone who played such a pivotal role in shaping our society.

Of course, there’s no cemetery photo to post today but the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has already announced that his gravesite will be integrated into their Civil Rights tour.

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Today is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s delivery of his “I have a dream…” speech during the 1963 March on Washington. I don’t have a photograph of King’s grave, but this statue stands in the park outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It may not mark his body’s final resting place, but statues like this of influential figures serve some of the same purposes. They provide a focal point for memory and a place to talk about what that person did and why it is important.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Statue

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