New Vision For King's Generation Of Pastors

By Greg Garrison and Val Walton
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 5, 2008

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- They were pastors and civil rights leaders who broke the back of unjust segregation laws and set in motion the transformation of the United States into a more racially tolerant nation.

Forty years after the violent death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the generation of pastors whose passion and commitment to civil rights rang from pulpits, stirred marches and rallies, and even filled jail cells, is fading.

In the post-civil rights movement years, activist preachers have set their sights on different kinds of injustices: crime, educational inequities and the gap between rich and poor.

"The generation that's coming up now is enjoying the fruit of the work of those leaders," said Janice Franklin, director of the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture at Alabama State University.

Many of the old lions of the civil rights movement have died in recent years. They were friends and allies of King and played supporting roles in the civil rights movement that started in the South and soon spread nationwide.

The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, 86, invited the Rev. Martin Luther King to Birmingham in 1963 to assist in leading the civil rights struggle. He pastored Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville for eight years before moving to Cincinnati in 1961, but returned to Birmingham regularly to lead rallies and marches. "My blood ran through Birmingham streets," he often said, referring to the times he was beaten by police.

The road to justice in Birmingham was paved with the leadership of clergy and their churches -- the center of religious and civic life in the city's black communities.

Pastors often carried their work from the pulpits to the courtrooms, said U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon. In the 1960s, Clemon was a young Columbia Law School graduate who handled civil rights cases.

"Black ministers often were the plaintiffs" in lawsuits to change laws, Clemon said. There also were numerous cases of Birmingham vs. Fred Shuttlesworth, involving trespass, Clemon said.

Today, Shuttlesworth is back in Birmingham, undergoing rehabilitation for a stroke he suffered last year. His fiery sermons might be done, but he hasn't given up on his fight for justice.

"I don't figure I've lost my life," Shuttlesworth said recently. "I have more to do. It will involve challenging something about the system. Something about it is not quite right."

Abraham Woods, 79, a longtime loyal supporter of Shuttlesworth, has been battling cancer for several years, and in 2006 passed on the presidency of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference to his 74-year-old brother, Calvin.

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