Sunday, January 18, 2004

Once arm in arm with King, he's still carrying the torch

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in the office of his Greater New Light Baptist Church in North Avondale.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
At 81, the voice of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth remains strong.

Along with his plans to re-invigorate the struggle for civil rights.

He is the last surviving member of the movement's Big Three, which included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.

He marched in protests, his arms linked with theirs.

He's been beaten and bombed by the Klan, chased by police dogs and lashed by torrents of water from fire hoses. As he likes to say: "I can count at least 10 times I have been snatched from death's jaws."

As the new interim president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he talks about the organization returning to its traditional battlegrounds.

This self-described "battlefield general" wants to return to the streets - via non-violent marches. And the voting booth, via registering and educating voters.

If you don't think he's up for the fight because he has too many years on him, you probably thought Marlins manager Jack McKeon was too old at 72 to beat the Yankees and win the 2003 World Series.

Of the Big Three, Shuttlesworth stood the tallest - he's 5 feet 81/2 inches - and may be the most down-to-earth. Credit the latter to his battlefield general mentality. He mixes well with the troops.

The three were friends. So, when Shuttlesworth talks about the man he calls "God's gift to America," he refers to him simply as "Martin."

"That's what he was to me," Shuttlesworth says, settling behind a secretary's desk at North Avondale's Greater New Light Baptist Church, which he founded 38 years ago.

"Martin was Martin. Ralph was Ralph. I was just Fred."

No one called him by his middle name. Except Birmingham's sheriff.

"Every time he'd arrest me after a march. And I've been arrested at least 35 times. He'd sing out my name: 'Freddieeeeeee Leeeeeeeeeeee!' "

His portable phone rings. It's the first of 27 calls he'll receive over the next three hours as late morning stretches into early afternoon. At times he juggles four phones at once. All the while, he keeps his cool. And praises the Lord.

The caller is another Martin - Martin Luther King III.

The son of the martyred civil rights leader is the man Shuttlesworth is succeeding at the organization founded by King in 1957.

Shuttlesworth nominated the younger King for the job.

"He has the knowledge, the history and his daddy's name to succeed."

The younger King's heart was in the job. But not his head.

"Martin was not of a mind," Shuttlesworth says, to deal with the organization's internal politics.

The two leaders use their phone time to go over Shuttlesworth's itinerary - speeches in New York, Philadelphia and Birmingham, meetings at conference headquarters in Atlanta - and his disdain for spending time in airports.

"I had two hours between flights. Two hours wasted," Shuttlesworth says. "My non-violence stance was grievously vexed."

Heading the civil rights group also could leave him vexed.

"People are congratulating me on the new job," he says. "Instead of praise I need their prayers."

He plans to pray with the group's leaders and other civil rights notables in Atlanta on Jan. 31.

"It'll be a consecration, a re-dedication" of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the principles of Martin Luther King Jr., he says.

Shuttlesworth wants the group to be more activist. He knows he's facing an uphill battle.

"People talk about freedom, but are not willing to walk for it."

He also knows the cause is a victim of its own success.

"Many people, who ought to know better, feel: 'We have never been this far before, particularly the blacks who are in the middle class. We have possibilities. No need to dedicate myself to this.' "

Shuttlesworth pauses. The laughter of children drifts through the window from a nearby school playground.

"Which brings me to the point of all this," he says.

"It's about hope."

In 2004, as in 1954, "There are people who want to take away hope, take away our freedoms."

He drums his fingers on the desk.

"As long as there is God," he whispers, "there's hope."

Then, he roars: "And God was, God is, God will be forever."


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