The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, courageous civil rights leader and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has died at age 89. Although Shuttlesworth never received the same fame as his colleague, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he was no less influential in the movement for racial equality, particularly in my home state of Alabama. Although King gets most of the credit for it, the famous “Project C” demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963 were Shuttlesworth’s brainchild. (If you’re not familiar with the name, think fire hoses and police dogs.)
Shuttlesworth was famously provocative, of course, and he was not without his critics, even within the movement. As his New York Times obituary states, however, “few doubted his courage” in the face of brutal and repeated attacks against himself and his family. One anecdote about Shuttlesworth is particularly revealing of his character, I think:
When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”
What stands out to me about this stories is that, despite the viciousness of those who would denigrate and dehumanize him, Shuttlesworth retained his sense of humor. Although he was not opposed to provoking a violent reaction from white authorities such as “Bull” Connor (an often-overlooked point which actually complicates the widespread belief that the movement was a non-violent one), Shuttlesworth never succumbed to the hatred shown by his oppressors, and he never lost touch with his essential humanity.
For that, and for so much more, he will be missed.