Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the least known but most impactful figures in the Civil Rights movement, would have celebrated his 100th birthday

The Civil Rights leader nobody knows on his 100th birthday

On March 18, 2022, Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the least known but most impactful figures in the Civil Rights movement, would have celebrated his 100th birthday. Unless you are a historian of that movement or one of my friends, you probably never heard of him.

Quick pop quiz: Before you began reading this article, how many of you have heard of “Bull” Connor? Of George Wallace? Of Fred Shuttlesworth? I don’t even want to know how many hands were raised.

But how many of you have seen the photographs of police dogs and fire hoses from the 1963 racial protests in Birmingham? Martin Luther King Jr. spent four weeks in Birmingham that spring, but not a drop of water from those hoses fell on him. Fred Shuttlesworth had spent 10 years in the capital city of segregation, surviving bombings (twice), beatings at the hands of Connor’s henchmen, and a blast of water from his firefighters and their hoses that could take the bark off trees.

He also spent nearly four years requesting, cajoling, even pestering King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to join with his organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to attack segregation at its strongest point. “Come to Birmingham,” he kept insisting, “and we’ll shake up the whole country.”

And he was right. The Birmingham demonstrations finally convinced a reluctant and racially timid President John F. Kennedy to introduce what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Shuttlesworth re-invigorated the work of King, whose civil rights efforts for six years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott had achieved only modest success. In 2017, Clayborne Carson, director of the MLK Papers Project at Stanford University, asked an audience at BYU, what if King had failed in Birmingham, would he have been asked to give the “I Have a Dream” speech or won the Nobel Peace Prize?” No, none of those high points in King’s career would have happened without the Birmingham demonstrations, which were unimaginable without Fred Shuttlesworth.

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