Sunday, October 9, 2011
Remembering Rev Fred Shuttlesworth
Mark Guilfoyle, mise agus Rev Fred Shuttlesworth
This blog has had the good fortune to meet many inspirational people over the years, in all parts of Ireland, in the Irish diaspora and beyond.
Often they are very ordinary men and women who despite very real dangers have been prepared to make a stand against injustice and to defend the rights of others.
Some walked the roads and streets and lanes of the north in pursuit of civil rights.
Some confronted and challenged the riot clad brutality of the RUC and British Army and the death squads of loyalism and the British state. And some refused to accept the status of criminal in prisons in Ireland and England.
In all sorts of little and big ways they and others stood tall for what is right. Most are anonymous citizens. Quietly and with dignity and courage, getting on with playing their part. Some, like Bobby Sands, Mairead Farrell and Maire Drumm, and many others took up leadership positions. They are remembered and are role models.
So it is in other struggles. They too have their role models. People like Mandela and Martin Luther King and Steve Biko and many more.
One such was Baptist Minister the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth who died last Wednesday aged 89. This blog met Fred in March 2002. I was in the USA for the St. Patricks week celebrations and had been asked to speak at the Cathedral in Covington, Kentucky. A good friend Mark Guilfoyle was instrumental in organising the event.
It was packed. I spoke from the altar and so too did Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. In the USA Martin Luther King, Rev Ralph Abernathy and Rev Fred Shuttlesworth are still regarded by many as the head, heart and soul respectively of the civil rights struggle in that country in the 1950s and 60s.
At the end of our event in the Cathedral we were in a back room and I was formally introduced to Fred. He was seated in front of a church kneeler. I went over and set on the kneeler and spoke to one of the heroes of the American Civil Rights struggle. He was a quietly spoken man.
Fred was imprisoned countless times, his home was bombed and on at least 8 separate occasions he was close to death.
He was a fearless leader and pioneer of the civil rights movement. He had grown up in rural Alabama, and worked as a labourer and a truck driver. He eventually graduated from a black college in Selma and became a preacher. One newspaper report tells how ‘a friendly college professor gave him a cow. Once he had given some milk to the college, the balance went to feed Shuttlesworth's family.’
He moved to Birmingham Alabama which was at the centre of the struggle against segregation. In the 1950s dozens of homes and churches in the area were attacked. The white police force didn’t care. The KKK (Klu Klux Klan) dominated.
The City was starkly divided. Every aspect of life was segregated – the schools, the buses, the restaurants, the parks and including the waiting room in the train station.
Rev. Shuttlesworth and his wife bought tickets and took their seats in the white section. Like Rosa Parkes who refused to sit at the back of the bus, this was a brave and courageous act. It gave huge encouragement to others.
The response from the white supremacists to the Shuttleworth’s defiance of segregation was to attack Fred and his family. They detonated 16 sticks of dynamite at his home one Christmas day. He described what happened: ‘The floor beneath me was gone, but underneath me was my mattress. I knew God was there. And I felt more peaceful in that moment than I ever have in my entire life.’
Interviewed years later for a documentary, ‘Eyes on the Prize’ he recalled.
‘Instead of running away from the blast, running away from the Klansman, I said to the Klansman police that came – he said, “Reverend, if I were you I would get out of town fast”. I said, ‘Officer you’re not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration.’
On another occasion in September 1957 he tried to enrol his daughters in the all white Phillips High School. There was a white mob outside and they attacked him.
Remembering that event he later said: ‘They really thought if they killed me – the Klansmen did – that the movement would stop, because I remember they were saying, “This is the leader. Let’s get the SOB; if we killed him it will all be over.’
Rev. Shuttlesworth was beaten about the head and body with logging chains and whipped. He recalled that the doctor was amazed that his injuries weren’t much worse. ‘I said, “Well doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head”.’
There can be no doubt that his actions in Birmingham helped create the conditions for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also played a key role in the famous march from Birmingham to Selma – that later inspired the Belfast to Derry civil rights march in 1969 – which led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
This blog was very pleased to have had the opportunity to meet and speak to Rev. Shuttlesworth. It was men and women like him and Rosa Parkes - who I was also proud to meet- who inspired many in the civil rights movement in Ireland.
We are indebted to their vision and courage and selflessness. The world is a better place for the stand they took.
And in these times of economic difficulty and opportunity for change in our own society let’s remember Fred’s words: ‘Do tomorrow what we did today, and do it the next day, and then the next day we won’t have to do it all.’