'They Can't Kill Hope'
Monday, March 27, 2006; 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- In 1963, during the most volatile period of the Birmingham campaign led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a fireman hit Shuttlesworth with a blast from his hose and pinned him against the wall of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The stunned minister was taken away in an ambulance under the watchful eye of Bull Connor, the city's notorious public safety commissioner. Watching the vehicle drive off, Connor declared, "I wish they had carried him away in a hearse."
Shuttlesworth's enemies often did far more than wish death on him. They ignited 16 sticks of dynamite and blew up his house in 1956 -- on Christmas Eve, no less -- with the minister and his family inside. Miraculously, no one was hurt. I was in an audience a few years ago when Shuttlesworth recalled the incident. He told his listeners that his young daughter said to him, "Daddy, they can't kill us, can they?" To which he replied, "No baby, they can't kill hope."
During another violent encounter with a mob, Shuttlesworth's wife was stabbed in the hip. She survived. There were countless other attacks. I once saw footage of an eerily calm Shuttlesworth disappearing beneath a mob of enraged whites. While recovering in the hospital, he was advised to leave his bed and go home. But he refused, thinking that he might die if he did so. "I'm not about to die," he said. "I'm just beginning to live."
He was often in the eye of the storm, and willingly so. With King and Ralph Abernathy, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). At various hot spots and volatile conflicts in the heart of Jim Crow country, Shuttlesworth always put his body on the line.
And he was right about just beginning to live: All the wishing and clubbing and stabbing did no good. Shuttlesworth continued a life of exemplary activism in Birmingham and later in Cincinnati, where he moved in 1961 out of concern for his family. Still at the forefront of the civil rights struggle, he briefly stepped in two years ago to lead the SCLC through a period of internal dissension.
"I lived to embarrass segregation. And fight it to its death," he told The Cincinnati Enquirer during a discussion of his life and career. "I did it with nonviolence." But time has done what the forces of racism could not. Slowed by a brain tumor that was removed seven months ago, Shuttlesworth retired earlier this month at age 84. On March 19, he delivered his last sermon in Cincinnati's Greater New Light Baptist Church, where he's filled the pulpit since 1966. About 300 people turned out to hear his words.
I wasn't there, but I can imagine how it went. Shuttlesworth's preaching style is iconic and has been thoroughly documented through the decades. Birmingham News photos of the movement, hidden in a closet and forgotten for decades, have recently been published and made available on the Internet. One photo, taken June 5, 1956, reveals Shuttlesworth in a characteristic pose. The picture was snapped shortly after Alabama pronounced the NAACP an outlaw organization. A week later, Shuttlesworth took to the pulpit and announced the formation of a new organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. "They can outlaw an organization," he declared, "but they cannot outlaw the movement of a people determined to be free." The image is one for the ages: Immaculate in a suit and tie, he leans into the microphone with a confident flourish, a compelling blend of elegance and fire.
Shuttlesworth is among the last of our greatest generation, men and women who reminded this country of its noble purpose and forced it to live up to the meaning of its creed. Fearless and ambitious, they refused to give in to despair or low expectations. For Shuttlesworth and his peers, anything less than full citizenship was out of the question. "'Nothing' will never be our destiny," I heard him say.
I was fortunate to hear similar comments from men like Shuttlesworth quite often when I was growing up in the inner city. But if such men are still a presence in urban environments, their message is not getting through -- and it certainly isn't enough. Shuttlesworth's retirement was nearly overshadowed by news reports describing the further decline of poor black men. The stories are bolstered by new studies and more statistics, but they don't really tell us anything we didn't already know. To properly address the conditions they describe, we'd do well to consider Fred Shuttlesworth's tireless example.