Confrontational but Nonviolent: The life and legacy of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Confrontational but Nonviolent: The life and legacy of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

By: Callie Morrison 

Sanctuary of Historic Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, Ala.

In July 2008, Mayor Larry Langford and the Birmingham Airport Authority voted to change the name of the Birmingham International Airport to the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in honor of Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a highly committed activist throughout the Civil Rights movement. 

Langford officially introduced the name change at a ceremony in April 2009, where he gave a powerful testament to why Shuttlesworth was worthy of this tribute. “If I don’t do anything else in this city, naming this airport after Rev. Shuttlesworth would have been enough.” 

“If it were not for Rev. Shuttlesworth, I would not be standing here. It was due to his courage, due to his determination and due to his unquenchable thirst for justice that Birmingham now stands as an example of what progress is.” In the spring of 2022, Mayor Randall Woodfin stands in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and proclaims March 18 as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth Day. 

Scenes of violence surrounding the Civil Rights movement claimed Birmingham as the most segregated city in America. Shuttlesworth and his role in the movement continues to influence the progression of the state of Alabama. 

In the 1950s, Alabama was home to arguably some of the most racist and intolerant neighborhoods in the United States. At the height of segregation laws, Shuttlesworth saw the suffering in his community and knew what God was calling him to do. 

In early 1953, Shuttlesworth became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, Ala., and was cast as a central figure in the Civil Rights movement. Shuttlesworth went on to found the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and valiantly continued his fight for the freedom of black Alabamians. 

Shuttlesworth announced his plans to lead his community in a protest of Birmingham Transit Company, in support of the Montgomery bus boycott. When hearing of Shuttlesworth’s attempt to integrate Birmingham’s public transportation, segregationists bombed his home on Christmas Day in 1956. Shuttlesworth survived the attack unharmed and took it as a sign from God that he was to lead this fight.

The next day, Shuttlesworth led the Freedom Riders to desegregate Birmingham city buses. 

“Rev. Shuttlesworth’s role in the movement put Collegeville on the map, but it also made us a target,” said Thomas Wilder, the current pastor of Bethel Baptist Church as he reflected on the impact Shuttlesworth made on his community. “It galvanized the people who lived here, making them aware that they were in a fight.” 

King, Abernathy and Shuttlesworth courtesy of Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives.

When civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. heard of the work Fred Shuttlesworth was doing in Birmingham, he knew they should join forces to strengthen their cause. Dr. King invited Shuttlesworth to Atlanta, Ga., and alongside Ralph Abernathy, they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. 

Because of their leadership throughout the Civil Rights movement and defiance of segregation laws, Abernathy, King and Shuttlesworth became known as the “Big Three” of the movement. 

The same year, Eugene T. “Bull’ Connor was elected as Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, which started a nearly six-year fight between Connor and the Big Three. Throughout the constant fight for freedom, Shuttlesworth wished to enroll two of his daughters in the all-white J.H. Phillips High School, but upon his arrival, was beaten by white supremacists who wanted to stop Shuttlesworth’s efforts to integrate schools. Later that night, Shuttlesworth preached a sermon on nonviolence and raised money for the movement. 

Shuttlesworth was widely known as Alabama’s greatest and most fearless freedom fighter. He endured beatings, bombings, and thefts, he was jailed 19 times and was constantly challenged by hardcore segregationists, but he refused to lose sight of God’s calling and faithfulness unto him. Shuttlesworth, apprehensive of the racial tension within his community said, “we have come this far by faith- not by violence. Birmingham is a great city and its future will be much brighter if all of its citizens will not allow themselves to be overcome by tides of frustration nor consumed by fires of hatred.”

Memorial garden remains where Shuttlesworth’s home was bombed in 1956.