By George E. Curry
Fred Shuttlesworth, who recently died in his native Alabama at the age of 89, has been widely acknowledged as the Civil Rights Movement’s most courageous warrior. He was so hell-bent on shattering the walls of segregation in Birmingham and throughout the South that he wanted to die for the freedom of African Americans.
That exceptional insight into the man who led the campaign to desegregate Birmingham long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived on the scene was chronicled by Joe Davidson, his former son-in-law, in an article published in the September 1998 edition of Emerge magazine and reprinted in a book I edited, “The Best of Emerge Magazine.”
“I tried to get killed in Birmingham,” he told Davidson. “I tried to widow my wife and my children for God’s sake, because I literally believed that scripture that says ‘…whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.’ I had no fear, you understand.”
There were more than enough volunteers eager to grant Shuttlesworth his death wish.
“In the 15-year period beginning in 1950, there were so many bombings by White supremacists that Birmingham was dubbed ‘Bombingham,’” Davidson wrote. “A city library list compiled from police surveillance files documents 61 bombings during those years, including 45 racially related ones. Two of those were meant for Shuttlesworth.”
Davidson continued, “One exploded on Christmas night 1956. Earlier, Shuttlesworth had announced plans to desegregate city buses on Dec. 26. He was in his bedroom in the parsonage, adjacent to Bethel Baptist. Fifteen sticks of dynamite were placed between the church and the parsonage, about 2 feet from where Shuttlesworth was relaxing. His wife and four children also were in the house, as was a deacon and his wife. The bomb blew a hole in the floor, and its force blew Shuttlesworth into the hole. The bomb destroyed the house. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. As Shuttlesworth walked from rubble, a police officer, whom Shuttlesworth believes was a Klansman, told him: ‘I know these people, reverend. I didn’t know they would go this far. If I was you, I’d get out of town.’
“Shuttlesworth replied, ‘Well, you’re not me. And tell your friends God didn’t save me to run. I’m here for the duration and the war is just beginning.’”
The next day, Shuttlesworth was sitting in the front seat of city buses, defying the city’s segregation laws.
U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first Black federal judge, said of Shuttlesworth: “He was the first Black man I knew who was totally unafraid of White folks.”
In his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. King praised Shuttlesworth, who estimates he was arrested 30 to 40 times,