For Black History Month we interviewed Ahmad Ward, the Director of Education for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, about Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the leading figures in Alabama’s fight for civil rights.
“We aim to kill segregation or be killed by it.” With these words Fred Shuttlesworth perfectly encapsulated his own persona. Shuttlesworth was the man on the street. He was on the receiving end of fists, chains, water canons and brass knuckles. “He said the first time he saw brass knuckles he was getting hit with them,” said Ahmad Ward, the Director of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. But despite the brutal beatings, Shuttlesworth—like Martin Luther King Jr. and many other Civil Rights leaders—lived a philosophy of nonviolence.
“Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth really was the heart and soul behind the Birmingham Civil Rights movement,” said Ward, “in fact, he was called ‘the courage of the national movement’ by people like Andrew Young and even Dr. King. The thing about Reverend Shuttlesworth is that he really had no fear, and he wasn’t scared of doing anything.”
And fear was a tough emotion to instill in Shuttlesworth. On Christmas night 1956, someone detonated a bomb inside his house, completely leveling the structure to the point where the roof had collapsed onto the street. “The entire neighborhood thinks that Fred has been killed,” recalled Ward, “but he walks out the back door without a scratch.” And just as Martin Luther King would do about one month later when his own house was bombed, Shuttlesworth went out to reassure his frightened neighbors and calmly tell them to return home.
But Birmingham in the late 1950s and 1960s was as close to a war zone as you could get in America. The city’s own Commissioner for Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, rode around in a small armored tank to terrorize African Americans as he ordered water cannons and German Shepherds to be used to attack protesters, whom were as young as nine years old in some cases. But Shuttlesworth was the quintessential foot soldier. He was someone you could look up to and respect because he was in the same boat as everyone of his fellow black brothers and sisters. But even more than that, Shuttlesworth’s actions were the means to a much larger goal.
“It was in Birmingham where Reverend Shuttlesworth really started to become active in his community, pushing voter registration, joining the NAACP; he was chairman for a voter registration and education committee. That’s where he really got his start,” Ward added. He became the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church and from that pulpit was able to organize and inspire people. But in 1956 the Attorney General John Patterson successfully banned the NAACP from conducting business in Alabama. This was achieved through a law that required a foreign corporation to be qualified before doing business in the state (the NAACP was based out of New York). Thinking they were exempt from this law, NAACP members had not sought qualification and as such were able to be banned from Alabama for nearly a decade. When this happened, Shuttlesworth decided to found the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956 to fill the void left by the absence of the NAACP.
The ACMHR had been involved in numerous campaigns including bus desegregation, school integration cases, and the freedom rides. In fact it was Shuttlesworth who invited King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to Birmingham to lead mass demonstrations in 1963. “Shuttlesworth knew the national movement needed a big victory,” Ward said. “And Martin Luther King understood Bull Connor was going to do something. And Shuttlesworth knew if King came, the national media would, too, and that would put the spotlight on Birmingham.” Shuttlesworth was right.
The Children’s Crusade of 1963 in Birmingham became a point of national contention. Thousands of school-aged kids took to the streets to protest peacefully the racism they faced in their own city. Despite their nonviolent ways, the city’s police force responded with a measure of violence none could have imagined. “A friend of mine was a foot soldier who also went to Vietnam,” said Ward, “and he said he was more afraid of the Birmingham police force than he was of the Vietcong.” This was the type of threat the African-American citizens of Birmingham faced in their lives. This is the level of violence that Fred Shuttlesworth allowed himself to endure his entire life, but with courage, patience, and foresight, was able to show the people of his community and the nation that justice was worth fighting for.
“Fred was a founding father of civil human rights,” Ward concluded. “The whole goal was for everybody to live the American dream the way our forefathers constructed it.”
For more on the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and those who fought for equal rights, watch our American Freedom Stories series.