Nation-builder Series: Fred Shuttlesworth (Civil Rights Evangelist)

The Nation-builder series is a category of articles that focuses on ordinary citizens who felt pained by a problem and then committed their lives to doing something about it. The objective is to showcase, through these examples, the qualities that enabled these people succeed.

As we admire these people, it is hoped that we too will adopt the qualities and lifestyle they exhibited. In doing so, we too will not only identify our area of particular pain but we will also commit our lives to doing something to solve the problem.

The feature for this series is a man called Fred Shuttlesworth. Hewas a Baptist minister and one of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders. He worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., co-founding the SCLC and organizing direct-action protests in Birmingham, refusing to waver even after multiple attacks. He was also a community activist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Fred Shuttlesworth was born in Mont Meigs, Alabama, on 18th March, 1922. He worked as a labourer and a truck driver before graduating from Selma University (1951) and Alabama State College (1952). In 1953, Shuttlesworth became pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church.

In May 1956,Shuttlesworth established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and that same year, the organisation tested the segregation laws in Birmingham. This was immediately after the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was illegal.

In 1957, Shuttlesworth joined Dr.Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to coordinate and assist local organizations working for the full equality of African Americans through nonviolent campaigns.

Shuttlesworth’s civil rights activities made him a target of white racists and on the evening of 25th December, 1956, Shuttlesworth survived a bomb blast that destroyed his house. The following year, a white mob beat Shuttlesworth with whips and chains during an attempt to enrol his children into an all-white public school. 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.

In 1960, Shuttlesworth participated in the sit-in protests against segregated lunch counters and in 1961, helped Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) organize its Freedom Rides. When the riders were beaten up in Anniston, Shuttlesworth organised a convoy of 15 cars to rescue them. Later, when the riders were surrounded by a mob of about 1,000 armed white people, Shuttlesworth escorted civil rights leader, James Farmer, to his church. Farmer later recalled: “He was either insane or the most courageous man I have ever met. Shuttlesworth just walked through them, as cool as a cucumber. I think they were intimidated by his boldness.”

Shuttlesworth also led the mass demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham and this resulted in him being hospitalized in May, 1963, after being slammed against a wall by water from fire hoses. A few days later it was announced: “1. Within 3 days after close of demonstrations, fitting rooms will be desegregated. 2. Within 30 days after the city government is established by court order, signs on wash rooms, rest rooms and drinking fountains will be removed. 3. Within 60 days after the city government is established by court order, a program of lunchroom counter desegregation will be commenced. 4. When the city government is established by court order, a program of upgrading Negro employment will be continued and there will be meetings with responsible local leadership to consider further steps.”

In 1966, Shuttlesworth became pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church. He has also served as director of the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation, an organization which helps low-income families to buy their own homes, which he established in 1988. It has been claimed that the foundation assisted 460 low-income families to obtain houses.

In 2004, Shuttlesworth became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but resigned a few months afterclaiming that “deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organisation”. He preached his last sermon in 2006 and retired in 2007 after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.He died on October 5, 2011. On January 8, 2001, he was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton and in 2008, the Birmingham airport was renamed Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

There are several nation-building qualities we can gain from the life of Fred Shuttlesworth but I will focus on 3 core qualities:

He was sold out to a vision: Shuttlesworth was willing to die for the vision of racial equality and despite surviving several of attempts on his life, his commitment did not waver. Yes, he was hospitalised a few times but still he would budge.

The willingness to die or suffer grave injury for a cause is essential for any citizen who desires to build and sustain a developed Nigeria. Those who have stolen us dry for decades would not be willing to give up easily.

Courage: Because Shuttlesworth was sold out to the vision, he gained courage to confront the visible and formidable forces of racial segregation. Their instruments of intimidation (bombs, dogs, batons, etc.) would not deter him from stepping out and when he did, others followed. This was why Martin Luther King described Shuttlesworth as “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South”.

One of our biggest needs in nation-building is for courageous citizens who will dare to step out and confront the current status quo, not minding the risk of death, police torture or arrest.

Single Focus: Despite numerous attempted on his life, beatings from the police and Ku Klux Klansmen, and betrayal by his own people, Shuttlesworth remained committed to one vision – an end to racial segregation in Southern America. He served that vision with over 50 years and well into his 80s.

There is a need for a rise in citizens who would identify with one issue and give their lives to solving that one issue.

Summary

Fred Shuttlesworth was a preacher who believed strongly in putting his faith in God into practical action because he was fully persuaded that all men were equal before God. He became an exemplary role model to all around him and was revered by his opponents and those in government.

He lived a sacrificial life and in doing so, he reproduced several other civil rights and community activists who laid down their lives for the vision of creating an American of equal opportunities.

Are you fully persuaded about the benefits of a developed Nigeria? Are you willing to lay your life down in pursuit of this vision?

Bobby Udoh is a Nation-building Evangelist, Blogger, Growth Mindset Enthusiast and Author of the book ‘Nation-building: How to build and sustain a developed Nigeria’. Subscribe to bobbyudoh.com for nation-building articles, videos and podcast, and network with other nation-builders.

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