Meeting a Living Legend

It isn’t often that a man gets to meet one of his boyhood heroes. I grew up in the racially segregated South of the mid 20th century. For me, an African American, segregation was a fact of life. We went to different schools from whites, drank from different water fountains and sat in the back of the bus. I suppose I accepted it — that was the way it always had been; the way it always would be.

But in a tense summer, nearly 50 years ago, we sensed that a change was in the air. A nonviolent campaign against segregation had begun to gather momentum. Three names dominated the news. They were Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. King and Abernathy are both dead now. But Fred Shuttlesworth is alive and well in semi-retirement in Cincinnati. So when my friend, Pastor George Hart, asked me if I would like to meet him, I jumped at the chance.

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(Left to right) Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, are shown as they walked to their press conference in Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963.

Fred Shuttlesworth, age 85, is not as well-known as some of the other leaders of the civil rights movement. As a young man he was aggressive and passionate, and he espoused the nonviolent agenda of his compatriots — he was proactively nonviolent in advancing the cause at every opportunity.

As I sat and talked with this elderly gentleman in the sanctuary of the Greater New Light Baptist Church, which he founded in Cincinnati, I could still feel the passion and energy that drove him to face police batons, savage dogs and angry mobs in those desperate times.

Fred Shuttlesworth was born in Alabama on March 18, 1922. After graduating from Selma University in 1951 and Alabama State College in 1952, he became pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in 1953. In May 1956, Shuttlesworth established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). In December 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was illegal. Immediately, Shuttlesworth announced that the ACMHR would test segregation laws in Birmingham.

In 1957 Shuttlesworth joined Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the main objective of the SCLC was to coordinate and assist local organizations working for the full equality of African-Americans. The new organization was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."

Fred Shuttleworth’s enemies did not share the nonviolent agenda. On the evening of December 25, 1956, 16 sticks of dynamite destroyed his house, even shredding the mattress of the bed he was lying on. Miraculously, he survived. The following year a white mob beat him with whips and chains during an attempt to integrate an all-white public school. During this period Martin Luther King described Shuttlesworth as "the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South."

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Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Curtis May. May 2007

I asked him if, looking back, he would do anything differently. "I would not leave anything out," he said without hesitation. "Including the beatings and the bombing. I never felt more safe and secure. I could hear God saying, ‘I’m here; be still and know that I am God.’"

It was obvious talking to this dignified man that he is still an uncompromising, Christ-centered and Scripture-focused leader. He is still concerned and involved with civil rights. He told me that the movement needed to find its way again. "There is too much money involved," he said. "We need to find humble, Christ-centered leadership that characterized the movement in the past."

As we talked, I reflected on how much people like me owe to the courage and faith of people like Fred Shuttleworth. As he was getting his head beaten in, blown out of his bed and arrested 38 times, I was in the "safe haven" of grade school. Even then I admired his raw courage and dogged tenacity as he taught us not to hate anybody, although my friends and I did not always succeed in living up to this ideal. Given half a chance, though, I would have been out there working alongside him.

Thousands of grade school and college students did march, even elementary students, especially those who lived in and around Birmingham. They were arrested, beaten, attacked by police dogs and knocked down by water hoses. They were fighting, even sacrificing their lives for racial equality and human dignity, to not be called the "N" word by state officials, for the right to a good education, access to job opportunities, for enfranchisement and basic civil rights, such as defending our families, eating in a restaurant, using a public restroom or riding on a bus.

Our educational resources were severely limited. Most black schools were supplied with the used books that white schools were finished with. But armed with courage inspired in large part from heroes like Fred Shuttlesworth, I graduated in 1963 from Sunshine High School in Newbern, Alabama, as valedictorian. Even so, no scholarships were available. They were for the white schools down the road. Later I moved to New York, where I had relatives. I worked and attended night school. Then I got married and moved with my wife, Jannice, to California and attended college.

We have been tremendously blessed over the years, pastoring churches and traveling internationally.

Our children both graduated from college and are married. Our daughter Angela is a CPA and real estate agent. Our son Bradley is a police officer in flight operations. They both have healthy relationships across racial and ethnic lines.

Fred Shuttlesworth’s life shows that we can change things. Sometimes the task may seem impossible. There are days when we might even seem to be losing ground. But I believe to work for justice and understanding is part of every Christian’s responsibility, and Fred Shuttlesworth showed how faith, hope and clarity of vision will eventually win the day.

He reminded me that the struggle is not over. America may be a freer, less racist place than it was 50 years ago, although there are still pockets of ignorance and prejudice on all sides. But there are still too many places in our world where the struggle against prejudice is still in its early stages. In some, it has not even begun.

I thought about this as I talked with the brave, dignified old man in Cincinnati. How different my life might have been if he and people like him had not had the courage to say, "Enough is enough."

p>Curtis May is an ordained minister and the Director of the Office of Reconciliation Ministries of Grace Communion International. He lives with his wife Jannice in Beaumont, California.

Curtis May
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