Fred Shuttlesworth

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Fred Shuttlesworth (born Freddie Lee Robinson on March 18, 1922) was a civil rights activist who led the fight against segregation and other forms of racism as a minister in Birmingham, Alabama. He continued to work against racism and for alleviation of the problems of the homeless in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he took up a pastorate in 1961. He returned to Birmingham after his retirement in 2007.

The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama is named after him.

Early life

Born in Mount Meigs, Alabama, Shuttlesworth became pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953 and was Membership Chairman of the Alabama state chapter of the NAACP in 1956, when the State of Alabama formally outlawed it from operating within the state. In May, 1956 Shuttlesworth and Ed Gardner established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to take up the work formerly done by the NAACP.

The ACMHR raised almost all of its funds from local sources at mass meetings. It used both litigation and direct action to pursue its goals. When the authorities ignored the ACMHR's demand that the City hire black police officers, the organization sued. Similarly, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in December, 1956 that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama was unconstitutional, Shuttlesworth announced that the ACMHR would challenge segregation laws in Birmingham on December 26, 1956.

On December 25, 1956, unknown persons tried to kill Shuttlesworth by placing sixteen sticks of dynamite under his bedroom window. Shuttlesworth somehow escaped unhurt even though his house was heavily damaged. A police officer, who also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, told Shuttlesworth as he came out of his home, "If I were you I'd get out of town as quick as I could". Shuttlesworth told him to tell the Klan that he was not leaving and "I wasn't saved to run."

Fred Shuttlesworth led a group that integrated Birmingham's buses the next day, then sued after police arrested twenty-one passengers. His congregation built a new parsonage for him and posted sentries outside his house.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In 1957 Shuttlesworth, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy from Montgomery, Rev. Joseph Lowery from Mobile, Alabama, Rev. T.J. Jemison from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Rev. C.K. Steele from Tallahassee, Florida, Rev. A.L.Davis from New Orleans, Louisiana and Bayard Rustin founded the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, later renamed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC adopted a motto to underscore its commitment to nonviolence: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."

Shuttlesworth embraced that philosophy, even though his own personality was combative, headstrong and sometimes blunt-spoken to the point that he frequently antagonized his colleagues in the movement as well as his opponents. He was not shy in asking King to take a more active role in leading the fight against segregation and warning that history would not look kindly on those who gave "flowery speeches" but did not act on them. He alienated some members of his congregation by devoting as much time as he did to the civil rights movement, at the expense of weddings, funerals and other ordinary church functions.

As a result, in 1961 Shuttlesworth moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to take up the pastorage of the Revelation Baptist Church. He remained intensely involved in the Birmingham struggle after moving to Cincinnati and frequently returned to help lead actions.

Shuttlesworth was apparently personally fearless, even though he was aware of the risks he ran. Other committed activists were scared off or mystified by his willingness to accept the risk of death. Shuttlesworth himself vowed to "kill segregation or be killed by it".

1957 attempt on his life

That nearly came true in 1957. When Shuttlesworth and his wife attempted to enroll their children in a previously all-white public school in Birmingham, a mob of Klansmen attacked them, with the police nowhere to be seen. His assailants beat him with chains and brass knuckles in the street while someone stabbed his wife. Shuttlesworth lost consciousness but was dragged to safety and driven away.

When the doctor attending him expressed surprise that he had not suffered a concussion, Shuttlesworth replied, "Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head."[citation needed] His wife, for her part, expressed regret that modesty would not allow her to show other church members the scar she had gained.

In 1958 Shuttlesworth survived another attempt on his life. A church member standing guard saw a bomb and quickly moved it to the street before it went off.

Freedom Rides and Project C

Shuttlesworth participated in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in 1960 and took part in the organization of the Freedom Rides in 1961.

He invited King to come to Birmingham in 1963 to lead the campaign to desegregate it through mass demonstrations–what Shuttlesworth called "Project C", the "C" standing for "confrontation". While Shuttlesworth was willing to negotiate with political and business leaders for peaceful abandonment of segregation, he believed, with good reason, that they would not take any steps that they were not forced to take. He suspected their promises could not be trusted on until they acted on them.

One of the 1963 demonstrations he led resulted in Shuttlesworth's being convicted of parading without a permit from the City Commission. On appeals the case reached the US Supreme Court. In its 1969 decision of Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, the Supreme Court reversed Shuttlesworth's conviction. They determined circumstances indicated that the parade permit was denied not to control traffic, as the state contended, but to censor ideas.

In 1963 Shuttlesworth was set on provoking a crisis that would force the authorities and business leaders to recalculate the cost of segregation. He was helped immeasurably by Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety and most powerful public official in Birmingham, who used Klan groups to heighten violence against blacks in the city. Even as the business class was beginning to see the end of segregation, Connor was determined to maintain it. While Connor's direct police tactics intimidated black citizens of Birmingham, they also created a split between Connor and the business leaders. They resented both the damage Connor was doing to Birmingham's image around the world and his high-handed attitude toward them.

Similarly, while Connor may have benefited politically in the short run from Shuttlesworth's determined provocations, that also fit Shuttleworth's long-term plans. The televised images of Connor's directing handlers of police dogs to attack unarmed demonstrators and firefighters' using hoses to knock down children had a profound effect on American citizens' view of the civil rights struggle.

Shuttlesworth's activities were not limited to Birmingham. In 1964 he traveled to St. Augustine, Florida (which he often cited as the place where the civil rights struggle met with the most violent resistance), taking part in marches and widely publicized beach wade-ins that led directly to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus he was a key figure in the Birmingham campaign that led to the initiation of the law, and the St. Augustine campaign that finally brought it into being.

In 1965 he was also active in Selma, Alabama, and the march from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus playing an important role in the efforts that led to the passage of the two great legislative accomplishments of the civil rights movement. In later years he took part in commemorative activities in Selma at the time of the anniversary of the famous march. And he returned to St. Augustine in 2004 to take part in a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the civil rights movement there.

Greater New Light Baptist Church

Shuttlesworth organized the Greater New Light Baptist Church in 1966 and founded the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation in 1988 to assist families who might otherwise be unable to buy their own homes.

Named President of the SCLC in August, 2004, he resigned later in the year, complaining that "deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organization".


In January 2006, Shuttlesworth announced his retirement from the ministry. Prompted by the removal of a non-cancerous brain tumour in August of the previous year, he gave his final sermon in front of 300 people at the Greater New Light Baptist Church on the 19th March 2006—the weekend of his 84th birthday.

He and his second wife, Sephira, moved to downtown Birmingham where he is receiving medical treatment.

On July 16, 2008, the Birmingham, Alabama Airport Authority approved changing the name of the Birmingham International Airport (U.S.) in honor of Shuttlesworth. On October 27, 2008, the airport was offically changed to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.


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