The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 41      November 14, 2011

Fred Shuttlesworth,
proletarian fighter
Helped lead Black rights struggle that
permanently strengthened working class in U.S.
(feature article)
BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a central leader of the mass proletarian movement for Black rights that smashed Jim Crow and permanently strengthened the fighting capacity of the working class by raising self-confidence among African-Americans and laying the basis for greater unity in struggle between workers of all races and nationalities, died here October 5. He was 89 years old.

Over the October 22-24 weekend, family, former combatants and Birmingham city officials organized three days of tributes, marches and rallies here to celebrate his life and the battles he fought.

Shuttlesworth is best known for his leadership in the pivotal 1963 confrontation with Jim Crow segregation and racist brutality that has come to be known as the Battle of Birmingham.

This monumental battle ushered in a new stage in the fight for Black rights. Tens of thousands of workers entered the fray with mass actions and direct confrontations.

Birmingham was a large center of heavy industry in the mostly rural South. It had the highest ratio of factory workers in the nation, with a deeply rooted union consciousness.

More than 60 percent of workers in the area’s steel mills and coal mines were Black. Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church was located in one of the city’s Black working-class neighborhoods.

In April 1963 Shuttlesworth won the agreement of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders to support the campaign in Birmingham.

Thousands of workers and young people confronted the racists. When the police, led by Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, tried to arrest them all, the young fighters decided to overwhelm them. After arresting 2,400 people, the city government was hit with a march of 3,000 more. With their jails overflowing, Connor unleashed police dogs and high-pressure hoses. The youth kept coming, mass actions continued for months.

Shuttlesworth himself was bitten by dogs and had his chest damaged by the water hoses, putting him in the hospital.

The fight in Birmingham broke through the national and international news, winning sympathy and respect and inspiring working people, while exposing the Kennedy administration’s refusal to curb the repressive violence meted out against workers and youth.  
‘Demonstrations will continue’
In the midst of the fight U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called King and pressed him to call off the demonstrations. King agreed.

“Shuttlesworth was in the hospital,” Rev. Claude Oliver told a Birmingham rally October 22. “Bobby Kennedy was on the phone waiting to hear the decision. Shuttlesworth heard of the decision and bolted from the hospital.

“Shuttlesworth had a few choice words for King and told him, ‘You can call off the demonstrations but they will continue.’”

King had to tell Kennedy that the deal was off.

The Battle of Birmingham inspired mass actions in cities across the country, including the historic confrontations in Selma and Montgomery the next year. Together, these fights shattered Jim Crow and the racist brutality organized to defend it, forcing the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Shuttlesworth was born in 1922 to Alberta Robinson, a 22-year-old single mother in Mugler, Ala. He got his last name when she married William Shuttlesworth, a coal miner.

The family tried to scratch out a living during the depression. Shuttlesworth was sentenced to two years probation in 1940 for working in a moonshine operation.

In 1943 he got a job as a truck driver at the Brookley Air Force Base. In one of his first political confrontations, Shuttlesworth protested a move by the bosses to cut the pay of one of his Black coworkers.

Shuttlesworth became pastor at the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953. He could not afford to attend an officially recognized religious college, getting his degree from an unaccredited Black preachers’ school.

He joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was challenging segregation across the South. He organized hundreds of workers to refuse to ride in the “colored” section on city buses and was brutally beaten when he tried to enroll his children in a segregated white school.  
State officials target NAACP
The NAACP was targeted by officials all over the South. In 1956 Alabama Attorney General John Patterson sued the organization, using a state business disclosure law. The suit demanded the NAACP turn over its membership list to the state. Similar measures were adopted in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Because of the threat of deadly retaliation by the Klan and the cops, the NAACP refused. The organization was then saddled with massive fines and injunctions, forcing it to shut down.

Shuttlesworth responded by organizing the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. A June 5, 1956, mass meeting of nearly 1,000 elected Shuttlesworth president. The emphasis of the new organization was organizing direct action.

On Christmas evening 1956, Shuttlesworth’s home was bombed.

After the bombing Shuttlesworth told supporters, “Take your shotguns home. There will be no nonviolence tonight,” James Revis, Jr., told the October 22 meeting at the Bethel Baptist Church.

“I still have the double barreled shotgun my father used during his shift guarding the parsonage and church,” George Perdue told the meeting.

Cadres born out of these clashes became the backbone of the proletarian movement that fought the Battle of Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth accepted a position as pastor at a church in Cincinnati in 1961, on the condition that he remain active in the fight in Birmingham.

He continued to fight against racism and police brutality, as well as speaking out in defense of victims of cop frame-ups, against imperialist war, and on other social issues.

In April 2001 protests broke out in Cincinnati following the cop killing of Timothy Thomas. Cuban youth leaders Yanelis Martínez and Javier Dueñas, on tour of the U.S. at the time, changed their tour schedule to go there. Shuttlesworth invited them to his church to discuss the Cuban Revolution. They also learned about the fight against police brutality unfolding in the city, as well as the lessons of the fight for Black rights in the 1950s and ’60s.

In 2007 Shuttlesworth suffered a stroke, returning to Birmingham for rehabilitation the following year. He was no longer able to speak, but continued to fight against racist oppression and in the interests of the working class to the end of his life.

In 2010 Shuttlesworth was one of 11 veterans of Black rights’ struggles who signed a “friend of the court” brief organized by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, challenging a ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that a plant supervisor at Tyson Foods was not guilty of racist discrimination when he called an African-American worker “boy.”

Also taking place in Birmingham October 22 was a rally in defense of immigrants’ rights. The protest targeted a recently adopted anti-immigrant law in Alabama where signs were prominent calling for an end to “Juan Crow.”

A moment of silence was organized to celebrate the fighting legacy of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at the rally. “Shuttlesworth fearlessly stood up to racist politicians,” a bilingual leaflet explained, “and inspired millions to come out of the shadows and demand their dignity and rights.”  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home