by Tim Stafford
A Fire You Can't Put Out
What Abraham Lincoln was to the nineteenth century, Martin Luther King, Jr., has become to the twentieth: an icon of moral purpose and tragic ends. King's peer, John F. Kennedy, once seemed more mythically charmed, but his reputation has faded in memory. FDR? A great political leader but now an idol only to political scientists. King's memory has grown with time and now stands alone. The Lincoln Memorial, with its brooding, somber, elevated view of Washington, would serve as an excellent model for a memorial to King. In our minds he belongs in a Greek temple sooner than a red–brick black Baptist church.
A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth
by Andrew M. Manis
Univ. of Alabama Press
1999, 541 pp.; $29.95
The trouble with mythology is that while it heightens truth, it also works to distort it. In the case of King, his sacred status makes it hard to see him clearly as he was, and hard to see the civil rights movement as the diverse, fractious, lurching improvisation that it was. King seems to swallow everything, so that nothing seems to have happened unless and until he appeared on the scene, and all civil rights leaders get appraised strictly by how they related to King.
This pertains to Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, or else I would not begin this review of his biography by writing of King. Shuttlesworth, however, has a helpful capacity to stand apart. Though he worked closely with King in some of the most dramatic episodes of the civil rights movement, Shuttlesworth was an utterly independent variable: rough and untutored where King was smooth; hasty to a fault where King could be cautious and hesitant; a leader instinctively drawn to the danger of the front lines, while King might be more likely found in a hotel room, plotting the next move. Nobody ever thought of Shuttlesworth as King's lieutenant.
Shuttlesworth made his mark in Birmingham, Alabama, where he grew up, and where in 1953 at the age of 30 he became pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church. Birmingham had a reputation for mean, violent white supremacy. About 50 black homes were bombed there between 1947 and 1963, thus earning the city the nickname, "Bombingham." Nevertheless, Shuttlesworth soon began to challenge white authority, demanding African American police officers, trying to integrate schools and buses, and, after Alabama courts banned the NAACP from the state, founding The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). He would later help found King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and serve as an officer. He spoke for civil rights all over the United States.
Essentially, though, Shuttlesworth remained a local leader and pastor. It was in Birmingham that he repeatedly challenged segregation, was beaten, bombed, and jailed but refused to quit. In Birmingham he became closely involved with the Freedom Riders, and with the dramatic events of the Birmingham protests, where Eugene "Bull" Connor brought out fire hoses and dogs to quell demonstrations of schoolchildren.
Shuttlesworth had attended college, but he lacked the education and polish of middle–class African American pastors and businessmen. In Birmingham they looked askance at his leadership, considering him brash and intemperate. They could never ignore him, though, because he had an utterly loyal following. His congregation was working class, and his rough–hewn, action–oriented rhetoric spoke to them. Above all he led by example. When brash young Freedom Riders were repeatedly beaten in Alabama for trying to desegregate Greyhound buses, Attorney General Robert Kennedy tried to to talk Shuttlesworth out of accompanying them on the life–threatening trip to Mississippi, quipping, "Oh my God, Reverend Shuttlesworth, the Lord hasn't even been to Mississippi in a long time." Kennedy was genuinely fearful that they would be murdered .
"Mr. Kennedy," Shuttlesworth answered, "would I ask anybody else to do what I wouldn't do? I'm a battlefield general. I lead troops into battle. Yes, sir, I'm gon' ride the bus. I've got my ticket."
King's great genius lay in his ability through rhetoric and symbolism to bridge gaps: to make northern whites empathize with southern blacks, to engage cautious middle–class African American pastors in dangerous crusades while also drawing hot–headed young people into a calculated, nonviolent movement rife with religious symbolism. Shuttlesworth, by contrast, had all the bridging qualities of a sharp stick. He won a reputation in the movement for absolute fearlessness, for reckless and unattractive egotism, for dictatorial leadership. He and Bull Connor seemed made for each other. Yet Shuttlesworth, in his own way, was indispensable to the movement. Without his working–class following, and without Shuttlesworth's insistence on confrontation, the SCLC and King would never have tackled Birmingham.
Shuttlesworth was immeasurably proud that he could speak on a first–name basis with the attorney general of the United States, Robert Kennedy, but he was largely immune to the seductive compromises that Kennedy offered. (Rereading Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters reminds me how utterly treacherous JFK's government was toward the civil rights movement.) The end of the Birmingham protests offers a telling contrast. Shuttlesworth, hospitalized because of a fire–hose drubbing on the front lines, got left out of the negotiations with white business leaders. When King announced the settlement to him he was furious, first that King had broken his promise to work jointly, and second that King would accept weak promises of future concessions in place of genuine reforms. King insisted that they must trust the good faith of the white negotiators, while Shuttlesworth, who had years of experience with them, knew better.
Shuttlesworth was right. The whites' promises proved worthless, and segregation was left almost untouched. But King was right too, for he recognized that their movement worked on a world stage, and that Birmingham businessmen must, in the end, be influenced by world and national pressure. Segregation came to an end in Birmingham, years later, partly because of a national consensus won through those Birmingham protests.
In making a myth out of King, Americans have naturally tended to strip him of his religion, so that his pastoral vocation appears to be an accident of African American society, rather than the ground of his work. There is even a certain amount of justice in this, because King's education and exposure in the North had taken him some distance from his roots as an African American Baptist. He could move comfortably with northern liberals, who would never have felt much camaraderie with a Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. King's career was built on lofty symbolism, appealing to a widely varied audience; while Shuttlesworth built his following out of working class church members who believed in God and in miracles in a very direct way. Shuttlesworth probably could never have taken on Bull Connor in Birmingham without that literal faith in God.
If King stumbled into his vocation through the accident of the unplanned Montgomery bus boycott, Shuttlesworth was marked as a leader by a miracle. On Christmas Day, 1956, as Shuttlesworth prepared to lead protests against segregation on Birmingham buses, someone threw a bomb under the parsonage of the Bethel Baptist Church. Made from between six and sixteen sticks of dynamite, the bomb blew up directly underneath the the bed where Shuttlesworth was relaxing in his pajamas, talking to a visiting deacon. The blast practically destroyed the house, and brought a large crowd of African American neighbors into the street, some armed. When police arrived, they discovered a hostile crowd that quickly grew to perhaps 1,500. Bombs were a common aspect of life in Birmingham, and nobody doubted that racists had decided that Shuttlesworth should be killed. Nobody doubted, either, whose side the police were on.
After harsh words to the crowd, one police officer ventured into the darkened, smoking wreckage of the house, searching for survivors. With his flashlight he discovered Shuttlesworth, miraculously unharmed, gathering his family and searching for a topcoat to wear over his pajamas. Shuttlesworth emerged onto the street and proceeded to preach a short sermon to the crowd. "The Lord has protected me," he announced. "I'm not injured. … Put those guns up. That's not what we are about. We are going to love our enemies. Go home and put the guns away." He went on to say that plans to integrate the Birmingham bus system would go ahead without interruption. No bombing would scare him off.
At the moment of the explosion, Shuttlesworth later explained, he had "heard" the words of Scripture, "Underneath [you] are the everlasting arms" (Deut 33:27), and he understood that God was protecting him. He told reporters, "I know it was the hand of God. I know I was preserved for a purpose: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to implement that gospel insofar as possible as it relates to human dignity and human rights."
"If we could have seen Christ walk on water," recalls church member Veronica Chappell Flemmon, "we could not have been any more reverent than we were when we saw Shuttlesworth come out of the house." A young member, James Roberson, said, "Think about it. The police said eight to eighteen sticks of dynamite went off within three feet of this man's head. He's not deaf, he's not blind, he's not crippled, he's not bleeding. That really made me think he had to be God–sent." Much of Birmingham's African American community would thereafter see Shuttlesworth as a God–ordained leader. As Shuttlesworth put it, "That's what gave people the feeling that I wouldn't run … and that God had to be there."
Shuttlesworth endured vicious beatings while trying to integrate schools, buses, and businesses, but ordinary black Birminghamians believed that he could not be intimidated nor would God allow him to be killed. Shuttlesworth's extraordinary courage had roots in his personality, but also in his understanding of God's literal providence. In his second–annual president's address to the ACMHR, Shuttlesworth emphasized that "This is a religious crusade, a fight between light and darkness. … We are assured of victory because we are using weapons of spiritual warfare. Against the racist's hate and scorn we are using the love of Christ, against his oppressive and abusive acts we are using the weapon of Prayer on whose mystic wings we sweep into the presence of God to lay out our troubles. Thus we are never tempted to hate white people or to return them evil for evil. … Always remember that we are healed by the 'wounds in His side,' not by wounds we inflict upon others."
Biographer Andrew Manis relates an incident when Shuttlesworth took sharp exception to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, when they spoke of Jesus' resurrection appearances: "King hypothesized that [the disciples] experienced something like an apparition, 'something that's not exactly real, but yet real.' Fred answered, 'If God lied about that, he lied about everything else. If God lied about anything, then God was not God.'" The disagreement was so strong the men never discussed theology again.
Manis notes that Shuttlesworth's "philosophy of nonviolence" owed nothing to Gandhi. "He had not read Gandhi at all; instead, his rural southern black evangelicalism provided him a background sufficient for moving into nonviolence. … Jesus' redemptive suffering at the crucifixion and his message of loving one's enemies served as a more than adequate model for the present moment of struggle. Once he heard Gandhian nonviolence articulated and connected with Christian theology by King, he accepted it as precipitously as he made other decisions in his life."
There was also the matter of authority. Many African Americans, particularly those in leadership positions, found it very difficult to challenge white authority. "Shuttlesworth willingly, even brazenly, disregarded the rule of Birmingham's segregated society," Manis writes, "but only out of his conviction that Jim Crow laws violated the principles of divine law and human dignity. He could thus paradoxically flout the authoritarian norms of segregation from within his own authoritarian view of the world."
In none of this—his courage, his literal Christian understanding, or his base in a fervent congregation—was Shuttlesworth unique. He was, however, a strong distillation of these qualities, and Andrew Manis's biography reminds us that the civil rights movement grew out of black Baptist churches. Almost all the early leaders were Baptist preachers, who provided community leadership within a particular theological tradition. They followed Jesus as a prophet, as well as priest and king, and their understanding of the prophetic tradition enabled them to seamlessly blend earthly concerns and the gospel.
Martin Luther King, Jr., went beyond the African American church, extending its message of reconciliation to people all over the world. He won converts in the most unlikely places—in Hollywood, in New York synagogues, even in Washington, D.C. (Ironically, he made the smallest impact among whites of the Deep South—his literal neighbors, often fellow Baptists.)
King worked from a base, however—a base that included his father and countless other African American church leaders who tried to apply love to racial hatred, insisting that this love was the greatest power on earth. Without that base, King might at most have won a reputation for eloquence. He could not have moved a nation without the likes of Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham.
Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today magazine. His book Sisters: A Novel of the Woman Suffrage Movement, was published last fall by Thomas Nelson. This is the second book in Stafford's series, River of Freedom (www.riveroffreedom.com).
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• A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, by Andrew M. Manis
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