Rev. Shuttlesworth, a Baptist minister and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helped establish nonviolent resistance as a central tenet of the civil rights movement, often at great personal risk.
In the early 1960s, he and other protesters were attacked with truncheons, fire hoses and dogs unleashed by Birmingham’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor. When the images of violence were shown on television and newspaper front pages, the horrors of segregation could no longer be ignored by the rest of the nation.
Rev. Shuttlesworth is often ranked in the highest tier of the nation’s civil rights leaders, alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, but few suffered more on the front lines. He was, King once said, “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.”
“I think God created Fred Shuttlesworth to take on people like Bull Connor,” the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped found the SCLC with King and Rev. Shuttlesworth, said Wednesday. “He was one of the most courageous men that I have ever known. I don’t know of anyone else that could have led the movement in Birmingham.”
Rev. Shuttlesworth faced down violence from police and racist mobs soon after he began preaching in Birmingham in 1953. In December 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of buses in Montgomery, Ala., was illegal, he announced that he would challenge other discriminatory laws in court.
On Christmas Day that year, 15 sticks of dynamite exploded beneath his bedroom window. The floor was blown out from under him, but he received only a bump on the head.
“I believe I was almost at death’s door at least 20 times,” he told the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2001. “But when the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind. I knew God was with me like he was with Daniel in the lions’ den. The black people of Birmingham knew that God had saved me to lead the fight.”
In 1957, when Rev. Shuttlesworth tried to enroll his children in a white school, he was beaten unconscious with chains, baseball bats and brass knuckles by a Ku Klux Klan mob. His wife was stabbed in the hip.
“He was a tested warrior,” civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson said Wednesday in an interview. “He was bombed. He was beaten. He was the soul of the Birmingham movement.”
Rev. Shuttlesworth’s biographer, Andrew Manis, told the Birmingham News in 1999: “There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”
Rev. Shuttlesworth was arrested more than 30 times and, Manis said, was involved in “more cases in which he was either a defendant or a plaintiff that reached the Supreme Court than any other person in American history.”