Wednesday, August 18, 1999
Shuttlesworth biography a civil rights story
BY MARK CURNUTTE
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Forty years after he organized the pivotal civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is receiving overdue recognition.
A statue of him greets visitors to Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute. Streets bear his name in Birmingham and Cincinnati, where North Fred Shuttlesworth Circle runs past his North Avondale church. He figured prominently in Spike Lee's 1997 documentary film, 4 Little Girls, about the fatal 1963 bombing of a black Birmingham church.
Now comes the first biography of the Rev. Shuttlesworth, A Fire You Can't Put Out (University of Alabama Press; $29.95). Author Andrew M. Manis offers an easy-to-read yet exhaustive (541 pages, including notes, bibliography and chronology) account of the Rev. Shuttlesworth's life and times that has curiously been missing for decades.
Fire concentrates on the civil rights years. As pastor of Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church from 1953 through 1961, the Rev. Shuttlesworth survived several attempts on his life while organizing black citizens against what were widely regarded as the country's most fiercely-enforced segregation policies. After walking away from a Christmas night bombing of the parsonage in 1956, he was sure God had called him and would protect him.
What: Book signings and discussions with the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Andrew Manis, author of A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. |
When: 4 p.m. Saturday .
Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Madison and Edwards roads, Norwood.
When: 7-8 p.m. Monday
Where: Books & Co., 350 E. Stroop Road, Town & Country Shopping Center, Kettering, Ohio.
Information: (937) 298-6540.
When: Tuesday 7-9 p.m.
Where: The Mount Adams Bookstore and Cafe, 1101 St. Gregory Place, Mount Adams.
Information: 421-0495 (office of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, which is sponsoring the signing).
The Rev. Shuttlesworth invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Birmingham in May 1963 to help desegregate stores, restaurants and schools, victories which led to sweeping federal civil rights legislation in 1964.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth remained active in the Birmingham struggle after coming to Cincinnati as pastor of Revelation Baptist Church in 1961. Now 77, he is pastor of Greater New Light Baptist Church, which he organized in 1966.
Mr. Manis, an editor with Mercer University Press in Atlanta, insists the Rev. Shuttlesworth is one of the unsung heroes of the movement and puts his self-described agitation for civil rights into historical and religious context.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth's marriage of his pastorate to civil rights leadership traces to the Civil War, when the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church drew a theological picture of America that excluded the possibility of separated races. He also emphasized the sovereignty of God in human affairs.
So while the Rev. Shuttlesworth enjoyed clarity in his civil rights mission, it sometimes conflicted with church and family obligations.
There was a gap, writes Mr. Manis, whose earlier book, Southern Civil Religions in Conflict, examined black and white baptists from 1947 through 1957. The people (of Bethel Baptist Church) generally shared the holistic approach of their minister, who saw civil rights as a central element of pastoral ministry to an oppressed people. ... Nevertheless, Pastor Shuttlesworth missed too many weddings, funerals, hospitalizations, Sunday School promotions and worship services.
Fire also looks unflinchingly at the toll the minister's life-threatening activities took on his family, which may have contributed to the end of Fred and Ruby Shuttlesworth's 29-year marriage in 1970.
Fred's extensive time away from home and insistence on giving all outside financial contributions to the (movement) rankled Ruby (and) exacerbated long-standing difficulties, Mr. Manis writes.
The author's painstaking research also uncovered details of dozens of incidents that are not yet part of the Shuttlesworth legend.
The book takes its title from one such incident.
For months in 1959, Birmingham officials used the fire department to harass and intimidate participants during mass meetings led by the Rev. Shuttlesworth. The wail or sirens outside would drown out speakers inside, and firefighters would interrupt, saying there had been reports of fire in the church.
One night, the Rev. Shuttlesworth reluctantly led an evacuation but fired this parting shot:
Ya'll think it's a fire in here? You know there ain't no fire here. The kind of fire we have in here you can't put out with hoses and axes!
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