Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Leader from Alabama, Dies at 89

24 Oct

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a major figure in the Civil Rights movement, and a key interviewee in Henry Hampton’s series Eyes on the Prize, died on October 5 at age 89. Shuttlesworth was instrumental in the Birmingham Crusade protest which riveted the nation in 1963.

The full transcript of Blackside’s interview with Rev. Shuttlesworth is available online, along with all interviews conducted for Eyes on the Prize I and II.

Rev. Shuttlesworth had been fighting segregation and racism in Birmingham, Alabama for many years before 1963. He was a member of the Alabama chapter of the N.A.A.C.P and a co-founder of TheĀ  Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) along with Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Shuttlesworth’s interview with Blackside, he vividly describes the times, his experiences, and the reader has a visceral sense of what it must have been like to live through those experiences. He was the target of violence and intimidation more than once, and he describes the charged climate in Birmingham at that time in his interview.

And of course you must remember that there were bombings…over 35 or 40 bombings in Birmingham, Alabama. We thought about changing the name to “Bombingham” instead of that. We always said that Birmingham’s heart was hard and black like the coal is mined, hard as the ore and the steel is made, it’s a magic city, but it was a tragic city…yet, we lived it and we survived under that. There had to be a change.

Rev. Shuttlesworth came to national attention with a protest in Birmingham he called, Project-C. C stood for “confrontation,” and reflected a call to action as opposed to conciliation. After an unsuccessful protest in Albany, GA, SCLC decided to try to desegregate the downtown shopping district. Shuttlesworth described the decision-making process in his interview,

SCLC needed something and I said, Birmingham is where it’s at, Gentlemen. You all must come to Birmingham and let’s do this, coming out of Albany, which was what many people considered not a victory. They needed a victory. Dr. King’s image at this time was slightly on the wane because he had not projected…we had threatened in literature to fill the jails. We did it in Birmingham…and we invited Dr. King in Birmingham to confront segregation. Massively nonviolent, with our bodies and our souls.

The campaign began as a series of marches and sit-ins which resulted in mass arrests. The goal was to continue to fill the jails and draw attention to their cause. As the campaign ran out of adult protesters, Shuttlesworth turned to younger Civil Rights activists including very young people in high school. Tensions escalated and the official response of the City of Birmingham, driven by Eugene “Bull” Connor was brutal.

Connor’s method of dealing with the protesters was to turn fire hoses and attack dogs on the protesters. These violent and turbulent images were recorded and broadcast by the media and had a national and global impact. Much of this footage was gathered by Hampton and included in Eyes on the Prize. Despite pressure to end the marches and protests, Shuttlesworth continued the campaign. The images of violence and brutality inflicted on young people via Bull Connor’s orders had a profound effect on the nation’s conscience, and galvanized the movement as Shuttlesworth had predicted. These events helped focus the nation’s attention the issue of segregation and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Shuttlesworth’s bravery and determination stand out in his interview. After surviving a bombing at his house in 1956, he described the experience,

It blew the floor out from under my bed…The springs that I was lying on we never found them. There I was lying on the mattress. I knew the relevance of Moses’ statement when he said, “Underneath the everlasting arm.” The roof came down…This is a strange thing, I knew that the bomb was meant for me. I knew what it was, and instantaneously, at the same time I had a sense of presence that I wouldn’t get hurt. I knew that. You can know something you never read. And I might say to you at that moment all fear was taken from me. I never feared anything since that time…I lived and walked out of that movement, I walked out from this instead of running away from the blast, running away from the Klan, I said to the Klansman police that came, he said, “Reverend, if I were you, I’d get out of town as fast I could.” I said, “Officer, you are not me, you go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration.” I think that’s what gave people the feeling that I wouldn’t run, I didn’t run, and that God had to be there. I think that’s what helped build the Birmingham movement.

For more information on this interview, or any other that appeared in Eyes on the Prize, please contact the Film and Media Archive.

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