Buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala., was illegal, more than 200 blacks in Birmingham would ride in the white sections of city buses for the first time.
The night before, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth had gone to bed early. His wife and three of his four children were watching TV in another room of the Bethel Baptist Church parsonage. It was a few minutes after 9, Christmas night, 1956.
Bang! In a violent flash, 16 sticks of dynamite exploded outside his bedroom wall. Shards of glass and wood flew across the room and pierced his coat and hat, which hung on a hook. The walls shook. The floors buckled. The Rev. Shuttlesworth, on his mattress, tumbled into the basement.
The blast was the first of three times that the Rev. Shuttlesworth was almost killed in the name of civil rights. He was the undisputed leader of the long battle to integrate Birmingham, which carried the tag ''Johannesburg of North America'' for its brutally enforced segregation policy.
Although he moved in 1961 to pastor a Cincinnati church, he returned often to Birmingham. He invited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) there in 1963. Those demonstrations led directly to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth, now 74 and in his 32nd year as pastor of North Avondale's Greater New Light Baptist Church, remains one of the unsung heroes of the modern civil rights movement.
Today's holiday honors not only Martin Luther King Jr., but the movement's other leaders as well.
''Martin had tremendous respect for Fred,'' Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's widow, says in an interview from her Atlanta office. ''He considered Fred a man of great courage, raw courage.
''Many people were committed to the movement but lacked courage to suffer the consequences of their beliefs. The Rev. Shuttlesworth was prepared to give his life.''
Some historians consider the Rev. Shuttlesworth one of the civil rights movement's ''big three,'' along with Dr. King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
For his part, the Rev. Shuttlesworth isn't worried about his place in history. He says he did what God called him to do - repeatedly stick his head in the mouth of the lion that was segregated Birmingham.
''I saw King as God's person to be the spokesman,'' the Rev. Shuttlesworth says today while sitting in his church office, lined with plaques, photographs and other civil rights mementos. ''A person who wasn't thinking about the movement, when they heard King, would start thinking about it. That was Martin's challenge.
''He wasn't to take the brutal work, although he paid with his life. The brutal work was my challenge. I was a battlefield general. I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn't.''
Immediately following the blast, Fred Shuttlesworth yelled to his family that he wasn't hurt, says one of his three daughters, Ruby F. ''Ricky'' Bester, now 52, of Forest Park. No one in his family was hurt either.
''He was so calm. His calm settled us,'' says Ms. Bester, who was 11 at the time.
Police discovered the Rev. Shuttlesworth and a deacon - who was visiting - beneath fallen lumber. In the rubble, the Rev. Shuttlesworth managed to find a coat and some pants to put over his undershorts. Another officer met him as he strode from the back of the house.
''He said: 'Reverend, oh reverend, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I didn't think they would go this far,' '' he says. ''I didn't say anything and walked around the side of the house toward the street.
''Then he said, 'Reverend, I tell you what I would do if I was you. I'd get out of town and never come back.'
''I said, 'Well, officer, you're not me. Now you go back and tell your (Ku Klux) Klan brethren that if God can keep me through this, the war is on, and I'm here for the duration.' ''
By surviving the attack, the Rev. Shuttlesworth inspired others to join the bus protest: 21 of the 250 who rode were arrested, convicted and fined. He was arrested more than 30 times and involved in filing 40 civil rights lawsuits.
He fired some of the first shots in Birmingham's civil rights war.
Called by the congregation to pastor 250-member Bethel Baptist in 1953 - his first pulpit was First Baptist Church in Selma, Ala. - he immediately took up any related cause.
His first battle was for voting rights, denied African-Americans until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Then it was city services, such as sanitation, and equal access to public accommodations, hospitals and lunch counters.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth filled a leadership vacuum, says Odessa Woolfook, a teacher in an all-black Birmingham high school at the time he came to prominence.
''There was a biracial group that was negotiating quietly, but he came in and forced the issue by confronting it,'' Ms. Woolfook says. Today, she is director of the Civil Rights Institute, a museum opened in 1992 to commemorate the civil rights movement in Birmingham and nationwide. (An 8-foot bronze statue of the Rev. Shuttlesworth greets visitors.)
Many Birmingham blacks tolerated segregation and didn't like him provoking the system. The white power structure saw him as a threat and thought the movement would die if he could be done away with. His church was bombed again in 1958.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth became membership chairman of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP, which, in May 1956, was outlawed in Alabama.
The night of the bombing, at age 34, he formed and was elected president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). It and groups like it would later join forces with Dr. King's SCLC.
The tighter city officials tried to squeeze segregation's noose around Birmingham's black community, the harder the Rev. Shuttlesworth fought.
''I was sure I wouldn't see 40,'' he says.
The toughness that helped the Rev. Shuttlesworth survive to see 40 and beyond can be traced to his mother.
Alberta Shuttlesworth, who died in 1995 at age 95, was not married to Fred's father. She later married William Shuttlesworth.
She disciplined her children with a switch. Fred was the oldest of nine and went to school and played in the Alabama backwoods before attending high school in a segregated Birmingham suburb.
''She knocked the stuffing out of the older ones,'' he says. ''The idea was the younger ones fell in line.''
It was a characteristic that would define the Rev. Shuttlesworth's own fatherhood.
''He'd whip us and tell us, 'Now don't even whimper,' '' Ricky Bester says.
When he was a boy, Fred's family lived by a popular motto of the Depression: Let Jesus lead you and Roosevelt feed you.
''I don't remember having the luxury of not going to church,'' he says. ''I remember getting most excited near revival time. I knew I'd be a preacher or a doctor.''
But not before being sidetracked. He married at 19, in 1941, the year he was convicted of running a family still. Fred worked as a truck driver and for a cement company, built a home in Mobile, Ala., from World War II scrap metal and bought a cow to feed his young family.
A Methodist, he converted to the Baptist church when he received a calling to become a country preacher in 1944.
He was a tireless worker, preaching simultaneously at three country churches outside Selma. It was not uncommon for him to preach at five churches on a given Sunday.
He had stamina and still cuts an athletic figure, although he doesn't exercise. His waist is narrow, his shoulders broad, even today at 74. Brown still outnumbers gray in his neatly-trimmed mustache and hair, and he always wears a suit in public.
The Rev. Shuttles-worth's second brush with death came in September 1957, the day he tried to enroll two of his daughters - Patricia and Ricky - in an all-white Birmingham high school.
A dozen men waited as the family drove up. Another minister was driving. When the Rev. Shuttlesworth got out of the car, he was hurled into a gantlet of bicycle chains, brass knuckles and baseball bats. His wife, Ruby, was stabbed in the hip. Their daughter, Ricky, tried to get out to help but was pushed back into the car and had her ankle slammed in the door.
''There were at least three or four cops there, but the intent was on me getting roughed up,'' the Rev. Shuttlesworth says.
The city's safety director, Eugene ''Bull'' Connor, enforced Birmingham's institutionalized segregation and was the Rev. Shuttlesworth's nemesis for many years.
With each threat and attempt on his life, the Rev. Shuttlesworth won admirers.
Among them were an NAACP chapter president in New Jersey and a black lawyer in Youngstown.
''What always struck me most about Shuttlesworth was his personal courage,'' says Judge Nathaniel Jones of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Cincinnati, who left Youngstown to become general counsel to the NAACP in the late 1960s.
''Shuttlesworth always put his body on the line. He was always manning the barricades and fighting for justice against the most egregious and brutal form of police and racial excesses.''
Milton Hinton, president of the Cincinnati NAACP, was also a freedom fighter.
''I was never physically in danger,'' says Mr. Hinton, former president of the Glassboro, N.J., NAACP. ''My children were never threatened. I wonder if I were living in the South if I'd have been so courageous.
''I remember seeing pictures of him with his arm stuck in doors of buses. This guy put life and limb on the line.''
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth came to Cincinnati in 1961 to pastor Revelation Baptist Church in the West End. He says God wanted him here to affect the civil rights movements in two cities. But there was an additional, more earth-bound reason. He needed to make more money to support his family and college-bound children.
''He didn't make a lot of money,'' says Ms. Bester, a special education teacher at Princeton Junior High School. ''Whatever honorariums he received for speaking, he had always put them right into the church.'' (Each of his four children are teachers, the oldest three in the Tristate; the youngest, Carolyn Shuttlesworth-Davidson, is an English professor at Howard University, Washington, D.C.)
By the time he came to Cincinnati, he was known nationally for his civil rights work in Birmingham.
He accepted the invitation under two conditions: He had to have complete control of the church and the opportunity to continue his work in Birmingham and other cities.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth had an immediate impact on local civil rights issues. He found an ally in the non-violent resistance movement - the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a Lockland pastor who led the Valley Christian Improvement Association.
The two ministers joined forces to battle what they saw as unfair hiring practices at Hamilton County's Drake Hospital, now Drake Center.
''I don't think that would have been settled if not for Fred and his organizational skills,'' says the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church and president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, then an Avondale barber.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth also organized and led pickets at Cincinnati Gas & Electric headquarters, downtown. The issue was what he and other African-Americans saw as unequal utility rates.
Organizing demonstrations is a Fred Shuttlesworth specialty.
''He can make 20 people look like 200,'' the Rev. Lynch says. ''It's hard to get a crowd estimate when Fred's in charge.''
That was the case in May 1995, when the Rev. Shuttlesworth lent his skill to an NAACP-led coalition protesting police-community relations in the wake of the videotaped arrest of a black teen-ager, Pharon Crosby, by Cincinnati police officers.
Mr. Hinton, the coalition leader, surrendered the megaphone to the Rev. Shuttlesworth the day the coalition marched to Cincinnati City Hall to present its demands to City Manager John Shirey.
''He came down to join in, and I could see the old civil rights warrior coming out,'' Mr. Hinton says. ''He made sure the line spacing was correct. He made sure there weren't too many people in a line. It was natural for him. He didn't have to try.''
Birmingham safety director Bull Connor had tried blowing him up, Fred Shuttlesworth says. Mr. Connor tried having him beaten. Now it was time to turn the water on him.
By May 1963, the Rev. Shuttlesworth had been in Cincinnati for two years but had never strayed far from Birmingham. He was back again to lead demonstrations and, this time, had invited Dr. King and the SCLC.
''Birmingham had the worst big-city race relations in the United States,'' Dr. King said.
By May 7, a demonstration by blacks crippled Birmingham's white retail district.
From Washington, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy kept tabs on Birmingham via phone.
By 3 that afternoon, police canine units and firefighters with water hoses were dueling with rock-throwing demonstrators. When the Rev. Shuttlesworth appeared at 16th Steet Baptist Church, leading a line of singing children to the demonstration, firefighters pinned him against a church wall with a stream of water until he collapsed.
''Those hoses could take bark off a tree at 75 feet,'' he says.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth could have been injured more severely than he was but says he heard the firefighters mention his name, which gave him time to turn his body away.
He was taken in an ambulance to the hospital, to which Mr. Connor said, ''I wish they had carried him away in a hearse.''
Negotiations took place that night and into the morning at the home of a white businessman. By 4 a.m., white merchants agreed to the following points with Dr. King and prominent local blacks: Dressing rooms in downtown stores would be desegregated. Lunch counters would be desegregated at the end of 60 days or upon the integration of public schools, whichever came first.
One of Dr. King's SCLC aides, future Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, visited the Rev. Shuttlesworth in the hospital and said his approval was needed. The Rev. Shuttlesworth, who wanted the protest to continue, was furious. Escorted by two supporters, he confronted Dr. King.
The two men reached a truce. There would be a one-day break in demonstrations to give the agreement a chance to take hold.
By Friday afternoon, May 10, Dr. King, the Rev. Abernathy and the Rev. Shuttlesworth met reporters.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth was exhausted. He said, ''The city of Birmingham has reached accord with its conscience,'' then collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. The mainstream national and international media, not knowing who he was, waited to hear the news from Dr. King.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth made no public appearances until May 15. By then, Dr. King had gone to Cleveland, and President Kennedy had ordered troops to Birmingham to enforce the pact.
When the Rev. Shuttlesworth made his way to a Birmingham church meeting, he said, ''I have just about de-bulled ol' Bull. I didn't know it would take me seven years.''
The Cincinnati years have not been without controversy for the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he owned more than 80 rental units. Beginning in 1984, according to court records, the equal-housing agency Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) received sexual harassment complaints against the Rev. Shuttlesworth from tenants and prospective renters, although no cases went to trial and all were resolved or dropped.
But in May 1992, a former tenant filed a $500,000 sexual harassment suit against him. Patricia Patterson claimed that he groped her, and when she refused to have a sexual relationship with him, he threatened to evict her and her children. A U.S. District Court jury rejected the suit two years later.
One month after he was cleared, the Rev. Shuttlesworth filed a $2.25 million counter-suit, alleging that his accuser conspired with HOME and others to ruin him. The agency and its co-defendants were exonerated when a federal judge ruled in May 1995 that there was ''no evidence'' anyone bribed women to accuse him of sexual harassment.
''I made a statement, even in losing the counter-suit, and emerged with my self-respect and integrity intact,'' he says today, repeating a long-held personal slogan: ''Unearned suffering is redemptive.''
The Rev. Shuttlesworth maintains a busy schedule. He returns often to Birmingham his most regular of several dozen annual destinations and delivered a speech there Jan. 1 to mark the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Almost half of his time is spent traveling and speaking. The rest is filled with duties at his church, which he organized with some members of his first Cincinnati church.
What can Fred Shuttlesworth do for an encore?
''I believe Christ has a goal for us that we come to know only through faith,'' he says. ''Until the job is finished (death), you stay on the job. I'm just as interested now in destroying segregation as I was then.''
These days, he is troubled by what he calls the violent, self-destructive nature of some young blacks. He thinks the non-violent approach would serve them well.
But his appeal as in the Avondale riots of the late 1960s has often fallen fallow.
Still, he's hopeful and ever the preacher. ''If people can hold on to their basic principles, this world will not fail before it's called to an end.''
The last few years have brought more recognition for his civil rights service.
In 1988, a four-mile stretch of Huntsville Road was renamed F.L. Shuttlesworth Drive by the order of Birmingham City Council.
In 1992, his statue was placed on the grounds of the Civil Rights Institute.
The inscription reads: With singular courage, he fired the imagination and raised the hopes of an oppressed people.
Christmas night, 1956, was the defining moment.
Half an hour after the explosion rocked the church parsonage, Ricky saddled up beside her father in the back of a police cruiser.
''They can't kill us, can they, Dad?''
''No, baby,'' he said as he put his arm around her. ''They can't kill hope.''