Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
One of the founding members of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Fred Shuttlesworth brought a militant voice to the struggle for black equality. In 1963 he drew Martin Luther King and SCLC to Birmingham for a historic confrontation with the forces of segregation. The scale of protest and police brutality of the Birmingham Campaign created a new level of visibility for the civil rights movement and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Born in Mount Meigs, Alabama, Shuttlesworth was licensed and ordained as a preacher in 1948. He earned an AB (1951) from Selma University and a BS (1953) from Alabama State College. Shuttlesworth served as minister at First Baptist Church in Selma until 1952, and the following year he was called to Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Shuttlesworth became involved in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1955. When Circuit Judge Walter B. Jones banned the NAACP from activity in the state in 1956, at the urging of Alabama Attorney General John Patterson, Shuttlesworth presided over a 4 June planning meeting for a new organization that became the ACMHR. Shuttlesworth led a mass meeting at Sardis Church the next evening, and was declared president by acclamation, a post he held until 1969.
In November 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional, Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR made plans to challenge segregation on Birmingham’s buses. The night before their campaign was to begin, a bomb exploded under Shuttlesworth’s parsonage at Bethel Baptist. The house was destroyed, but Shuttlesworth escaped unharmed. The following day, several hundred protesters sat in the sections reserved for whites on Birmingham buses. Twenty-one of the participants were arrested and convicted, and the ACMHR filed suit in federal court to strike down the local law mandating segregation.
Shuttlesworth joined King and C. K. Steele in issuing a call for a conference of southern black leaders in January 1957, “in an effort to coordinate and spur the campaign for integrated transportation in the South” (Papers 4:94). Held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the meeting laid the foundation for the group that would become SCLC. At a later meeting in August of that year, Shuttlesworth became SCLC’s first secretary.
As SCLC struggled through its early years, Shuttlesworth urged the organization to aggressively confront segregation. “I feel that the leadership in Alabama among Negroes is, at this time, much less dynamic and imaginative than it ought to be,” he wrote to King in April 1959. “Even in our Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I believe we must move now, or else [be] hard put in the not too distant future, to [justify] our existence” (Papers 5:189–190).
In 1963 SCLC joined forces with the ACMHR to protest segregation in Birmingham. SCLC leaders met secretly in January of that year to draw up initial plans for the Birmingham Campaign, known as “Project C”—C for confrontation. Shuttlesworth issued the “Birmingham Manifesto,” which explained the black community’s decision to act. “We act today in full concert with our Hebraic-Christian tradition, the laws of morality and the Constitution of our nation,” Shuttlesworth proclaimed. “We appeal to the citizenry of Birmingham, Negro and white, to join us in this witness for decency, morality, self-respect, and human dignity” (Shuttlesworth, 3 April 1963). On 6 April Shuttlesworth led the campaign’s first march on city hall.
As the campaign continued, tensions between King and Shuttlesworth increased. As a result of injuries from a march, Shuttlesworth was in the hospital during negotiations that produced a one-day halt to demonstrations. In addition to his opposition to the halt, Shuttlesworth resented being left out of the decision. King, however, was able to convince him to publicly support the decision. The Birmingham Campaign ended two days later, with an agreement between the city’s business community and local black leaders that included a commitment to the desegregation of public accommodations, a committee to ensure nondiscriminatory hiring practices in Birmingham, and cooperation in releasing jailed protesters.
Shuttleworth’s confrontational style provided a counterbalance to King’s more measured approach and served to inspire people to action. In his memoir of the Birmingham Campaign, King praised “the fiery words and determined zeal of Fred Shuttlesworth, who had proved to his people that he would not ask anyone to go where he was not willing to lead” (King, 61).
Eskew, But for Birmingham, 1997.
King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.
Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out, 1999.
Montgomery Improvement Association Press Release, Bus Protesters Call Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, 7 January 1957, in Papers 4:94.
Shuttlesworth and N. H. Smith, “Birmingham Manifesto,” 3 April 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
Shuttlesworth to King, 24 April 1959, in Papers 5:189–190.