Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Montgomery, Alabama-the back story

I left the Waffle house and drove downtown.  Montgomery had a different feel than Birmingham.  It felt older, steeped in more tradition, a city with a long past.  Turns out that’s true.   Birmingham’s story is about a steel industry that evolved after the Civil War.  Montgomery’s history is about cotton and was shaped before that war.  Here’s the short story on Montgomery.  Let’s see if I can sum up a couple hundred years of history into less than 1200 words by getting down to the important stuff.

In 1785, Abraham Mordecai, a Sephardic Jew from Philadelphia, established a trading post on the Alabama River in land then held by the British. When Mordecai got there the indigenous Coushatta and Alibamu peoples had already moved on to current day Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, territories controlled by the Spanish.  They thought the Spanish white men were easier to get along with than the British.  Creek Indians had migrated there, so Mordecai married a Creek woman, and traded with her tribe.  Business was good.  His little post prospered.  While the Creeks accepted Mordecai, they were successful in keeping other white people away.  Could be they were a tad meaner than the Alibamu and Coushatta.  But that didn’t last.

While Abraham Mordecai was wheeling, dealing, and making money off the Creek Indians, Eli Whitney, born in Massachusetts and schooled in Connecticut, found himself on the Mulberry Grove plantation in Georgia figuring out how to get seeds out of the local cotton.  Southerners had been trying to adapt a mechanical engine (shortened to “gin”) from India that worked fine on long fiber cotton grown in tropical areas of Asia, but not worth a damn on the cotton produced in the American South, which requires only 200 frost free days, can be grown almost anywhere south of Virginia and Kentucky, but holds its seeds tightly packed in shorter fibers.  Southern plantations could process only about a pound of cotton a day with existing gins, a huge bottleneck in an industry that was poised to produce a lot more cotton with the right technology.

Eli persisted despite setbacks.  He later said he was inspired one day by a cat trying to pull a chicken through a fence, and observed that it was only able to extract some of the feathers. Using that observation, he made a wooden drum stuck with hooks that pulled cotton through a mesh big enough that cotton fibers could pass through but small enough that the seeds could not.  The seeds fell outside the drum.   Eli Whitney’s cotton gin could clean 50 pounds of cotton a day.  He and a partner were successful in getting a patent on that new cotton gin validated in 1807.   Soon after they were for sale.

Back on the Alabama River where Abraham Mordecai lived it was decided the Creek Indians were standing in the way of progress.  The U.S. Government, now in control of the surrounding territory, sent General Andrew Jackson there who fought and defeated the Creek Tribe in 1814, and forced them to cede 23 million acres to the United States, land which now makes up Georgia and most of central and southern Alabama.  Mordecai’s wife left with her people who were removed to Indian Territory.  In 1816, the Creek lands in present day Alabama were sold off at ridiculously cheap prices to white settlers who had their eye on growing cotton.  Alabama was admitted to the Union in 1819 and Montgomery was incorporated that same year. 

Abraham Mordecai said goodbye to his native American wife, stayed in Alabama, bought one of Eli Whitney’s first cotton gins, brought it to the new town of Montgomery, and before you could say “Dixie” cotton became king in the South, with Montgomery, Alabama smack dab in the middle of it.

American cotton was soon being sold in markets all over Europe, feeding new industrialized textile mills.

Those buyers of cheap Alabama and Georgia land were said to become millionaires after producing but three successful cotton crops.  Cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2,850,000 bales in 1850 (a 380% increase for those who think that way) and wealth was created at a mind boggling pace.

As the cotton industry grew it became even more dependent on plantations and slaves.  Cotton could be cleaned by machine but only human hands could pick it efficiently.  Those hands were virtually all black, and they were in huge demand.  The number of slaves in the South rose in concert with cotton production, growing by 450% from around 700,000 in 1790 to 3,200,000 in 1850. 

Slave traders used the Alabama River to transport and deliver African slaves from the Caribbean, via New Orleans, to the heart of cotton country.  A large slave holding facility and auction house was established in Montgomery near the river.  The offices of slave agents surrounded that facility and grew the downtown.  Dealing in slaves was profitable too.

Montgomery was designated as the county seat in 1822, the state capital was moved from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery in 1846, and for a short time in 1861 it was the capitol of the Confederacy before it  moved to Richmond, Virginia.  Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the confederacy’s first president on the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.

By 1860, black slave labor was producing two-thirds of the world’s cotton supply including 80% of the cotton required by the crucial British market.  The American South was the world’s first international agricultural powerhouse, and Montgomery was central to all of it, as was the cotton gin.  In fact, many attribute the invention of the cotton gin, the expansion of cotton plantations in the South, and the dramatic corresponding increase in the number of imported slaves as the primary causes of the American Civil War.  Some even credit Abraham Mordecai and Eli Whitney.  Whatever the case, Montgomery, Alabama epitomized the rise of the South.  It was one of its crown jewels.   But its time in at the top was short.

On April 12, 1865, following the battle of Selma, Major James Wilson Union soldiers captured Montgomery for the North.  The Montgomery I walked into in 2019, its history forever altered by the abolishment of slavery in America, was of course very different than the antebellum South.  I figured that, but I was surprised at what I was to learn, not just about Montgomery but the rest of the South, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. In Montgomery I became witness to what I believe is the most painful and most shameful period of not only the South’s history, but America's.  

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Waffle House Revisited

Uncharacteristically, the mood in the Montgomery, Alabama Waffle House the next morning was tense.  The small yellow and black building, with its two cooks and four waitresses, was crammed with hungry people.

I like to sit at the counter in front of the grill and watch the cooks, but all those stools were taken.  I found one remaining seat on the side counter, where waitresses make up to go orders and do their other work.  WH staff have big name tags.

Michelle was working in front of me, frantically popping waffles hot off the iron into round plastic containers, eggs, hash browns, bacon and sausage into square ones, drawing down drinks, stuffing them into various paper bags.  I had no idea Waffle House did such a take-out business.  To say the place was cooking would be both terribly corny and an understatement.

Angie, my waitress, was an older white woman who seemed oddly serene in a sea of stress.  She moved slowly and deliberately, with a permanent smile on her face.  Michelle, her young black co-worker, took notice.  The woman next to me, having eaten, was waiting for a take-out order before leaving.  She sighed and squirmed, non-verbally complaining that she thought her order was taking too long.

Michelle checked a ticket near a sack at the end of the counter.  As she did Angie methodically opened cabinet doors below the counter, checked cartons on shelves above the counter, and looked lost and bewildered.  Michelle had seen enough.

“What you looking for girl?  And why is this order still sitting here?  I made that up for you a while ago.”

“I need take out syrup, and I can’t find any.”

Take out syrup is that small sealed plastic package of sweetness you get in the sack with your waffle.

“We don’t have no take out syrup.  We ran out last night.  Now get yourself a foam coffee cup, pour some syrup in it, put a lid on it, and get this woman order done so she can get out of here.  Jesus Angie.”

Then she added, for good measure or to satisfy the woman waiting for her food,

“We ain’t got no time for foolin’ round Angie.  If you han’t noticed, we busy.”

With that Michelle shoved a styrofoam cup into Angie’s chest and walked away.  After Michelle was safely out of earshot Angie replied, 
“Well, you don’t have to get nasty about it.”

Angie stood in front of me while she poured syrup from a pitcher into the cup.  She must have realized I was taking it all in. She leaned in by me and spoke softly.

“Our supply truck was supposed to be here three hours ago, and we’re running out of everything.  Everybody is a LIDDLE bit on edge.”

Angie smiled and cocked here head towards Michelle.  Then she carefully put the syrup into the sack of the impatient woman beside me who went quickly on her way.

Perhaps the busiest person working at the Waffle House that morning was the waitress doing dishes.  There are only two jobs that I can see at Waffle House, cook and waitress.  The cooks fry the eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, steak, pork chops, and hash browns.  The waitresses do everything else; make the coffee, dish up the grits, make the toast, run the waffle irons, do the dishes, bus the tables, set the tables, and check you out when you’re done.  That morning in Montgomery one young waitress was full time on the dishes.
She was heavily inked with tattoos on her forearms and had white girl dreadlocks covering her back.  I think I know now why Waffle House coffee cups are so thick and their plain white plates so substantial.  Cups, saucers, plates, silverware, and water glasses were getting slammed through steaming hot water, rinsed, dipped, and thrown onto a drying rack.  A steady flow of dirty dishes piled up on the dishwasher’s left, and clean dishes reappeared on her right, only to be grabbed by the waitresses, quickly wiped, and stacked where they and the cooks could press them back into use.  The sinks were a frantic area.  The dishwashing waitress didn’t talk, never stood up straight, just kept everything moving.

From where I sat I had a great view of the waffle irons. On the counter next to them were big white bowls of batter, and in them long spoons.  The batter was so thick it held the spoons up.  When I make waffles and pancakes I pour the batter.  The Waffle House operation involves spooning thick batter onto the waffle iron and spreading it around.  Their batter sticks to the spoon.  The waitresses bang the spoon loudly on the edge of the bowl so the extra batter sticking on it falls back into the bowl.  Thick stuff.  Maybe that’s what makes them so good.

Finally, Angie took my order.  Before I could start she gave me this warning.

“We are outa grits, city ham, and pork chops.  And of course, take out syrup which you know about, though you won’t be needin’ that.  So what are you havin’ honey?”

Saying they were out of city ham meant they still had country ham.  I had had a lot of time to think it over.  I wanted grits but it was of little matter.

“I’ll have a waffle, two eggs over very easy, and hash browns smothered, peppered, and diced with a large glass of milk. “

“You get toast too.  White, wheat, or rye?”


“No meat?”


“You got it baby.”

There’s something about southern waitresses and those endearing terms they use (maybe it’s the drawl) that damn near makes me blush. 

She was back within ten seconds.

“We outa milk too.  I got chocolate milk.  You want chocolate?”

“No. “

“I am so sorry.”  She was sincere.

 “It’s OK.”

About that time one of the two cooks, a woman wearing a baseball hat completely covered with buttons, walked by me in a huff and a hurry.  She had a disturbed look on her face and a big stainless steel bowl.  She disappeared into the back room.  When she returned the bowl was filled with eggs. She put them down by the griddle and made a very loud general announcement to everyone.

“This is the last of the eggs,   When we run out of these we in big trouble.”

The other cook, tall and thin, the only man on staff, reacted not at all.  He went on quietly spreading out strips of bacon, laying down sausage links, doing his job.   He cracked his eggs as smoothly as anyone I’d ever seen.  It looked like he barely touched them on the edge of the griddle and then was opening them up, one handed, into a bowl before tossing the shells and pouring them carefully from the bowl onto on the griddle.  All in one easy motion.  That's artistry right there.
He scattered hash browns over the grill and gathered ingredients.  I had a feeling they were mine, and by watching what he added to them my hunch was confirmed.

If you are unfamiliar with the lexicon of Waffle House hash browns it goes like this.  I ordered my hash browns:

 Scattered     -spread out on the grill as opposed to “in a ring”

With these options:

Smothered  -with grilled onions
Diced          -with grilled diced tomatoes
Peppered     -with grilled spicy Jalapenos 

I could have also ordered them:

            Covered      -with melted cheese
            Chunked     -with grilled hickory smoked ham
            Capped       -with grilled button mushrooms
            Topped       -with Bert’s chili
            Country      -with sausage gravy

Or I could have gone completely crazy and ordered my hash browns “all the way” which is scattered hash browns with everything above.  I’ve never had it and never seen it ordered.   It is insane to even imagine-cheese and chili and sausage gravy?  But it’s on my bucket list.

When Angie brought my order it was pristine and beautiful.  I had a full plate of hash browns, another plate with my waffle right out to the edges, and a platter of eggs with four half slices of hot buttered rye toast.

As Angie set my eggs in front of me I remarked

“Hey, that’s three eggs.”

“Yeah, that’s Randy’s thing.  When he messes up an egg he gives you the mistake.  He probably broke the yolk on one.  No sense throwing it away.  You get a bonus.  And, you get a warm up on that coffee. ”

She filled my coffee mug up to the brim.  It was steaming.

“Well that sorta makes my day.”

Angie smiled.  I swear I like Waffle House more every time I go there.

As I was dipping a corner of my rye toast into the runny yellow yolk of my first egg the back door opened and a sheepish young man rolled a dolly stacked with cardboard boxes into the restaurant.

The cook with the buttons on her hat let out a whoop and shouted “Bout time!”

Michelle got close to him and said “you damn lucky you showed when you did friend.”

The male cook, Randy I had learned, came up to him, reached for the clipboard he was holding, counted and checked out the boxes, and signed for them.

“I got another load on the truck.  Sorry about the wait.”

Randy dismissed his apology.

“Hey, stuff happens.  We’re just glad you’re here.”

In a few minutes Angie appeared with a large glass of cold white milk.

“That’s on the house sir.  Thanks for being patient.”

When I left I gave Angie a nice tip on the counter.  At Waffle House you pay out at the register.  The place had cleared a little but there was still a line to pay.  The dishwasher with the tats and dreads, now caught up on the dirty dishes, took my ticket and started to make change for me.

My day was rolling, I’d had a great breakfast, and I was happy.  I softly whistled a Cee Lo Green song.  The cashier recognized it.

“Where’d you learn that song sir?”

She looked up at me with a mischievous grin.  I was whistling one of Cee Lo’s catchiest tunes, not his best song but certainly his most popular, largely because of its raunchy lyrics.

“My daughter made me the CD for Christmas one year.  It was just running through my mind.”

“Cee Lo’s got some nasty lines in there.”

I was a little embarrassed.  It wasn’t the lyrics I was thinking of, it was the tune.  But I knew what she meant.  I just smiled.

“You’re secret is safe with me sir.”

When young people call me sir I feel old.  But it was all good.  We made a little connection there.

People work hard bringing breakfast to America, and nobody works harder than the staff at Waffle House.  I can’t wait to go back.

Monday, April 8, 2019

BBQ and Lickin' Good Donuts

I walked out of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute still immersed in the Birmingham of 1963.  It was a nice late February Alabama day.  I got in my 2006 Buick, turned left aimlessly at the corner, and drove into the Birmingham of 2019.  Downtown is still developing, but it has a ways to go.  Lots of empty buildings.

I went down the hill, still thinking about Fred Shuttlesworth, and found myself in a neighborhood with lots of foot traffic.  Nice sunny day.  I stopped at a light and a crowd young people, black and white, walked in front of the Buick with backpacks and shoulder bags.  I realized they were students, and I was on the campus of UAB, University of Alabama Birmingham. 

UAB is a big deal.  It has 22,000 students pursuing studies in 140 programs and 12 academic divisions.  UAB Health System is one of the largest academic medical centers in the United States.  Its hospital houses the only Level 1 trauma center in Alabama. Combine the health center with the university and you have the state’s largest employer.  Ten percent of the jobs in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area are related to UAB.  Every city has lots going on, but it would be a mistake to think about Birmingham today without thinking of UAB.

I on the other hand was thinking about barbeque.  I turned left once the students cleared out in front of me and found myself near a nice fountain in a crowded old section of Birmingham.  I was in the 5 Points neighborhood.  I parked and got out on the street myself.  I began to whistle.  My trip was going well.  A man on the street spoke to me as I walked by him. He turned and walked beside me.

“Hey there, you got a good whistle.”


“You take requests?”

“I’ve been known to, yes.”

“You know that thing they do at the start of the Andy Griffith Show?  That’s the best whistling tune there is.”

Without responding I began to whistle “The Fishin’ Hole,” a song written by Earle Hagen and whistled by Fred Lowrey, a blind whistler from Jacksonville, Texas.  Most people don’t know it has lyrics.  Here they are.  If you think of the tune as you read the words you can get the rhythm and match up to the beat after a while.

                Well now take….down…..your fishin’ pole, and meet me at the fishing hole

                We might not….get….a bite all day, but don’t you rush away

                What a great..place..to rest your bones,and mighty fine for skippin stones

                You’ll feel fresh….as….a lemonade, a-settin in the shade

                Whether it’s hot (bump bump bump bump)
                Whether it’s cool (bump bump bump bump)

                Oh what a spot (bump) For whistlin’ like a fool 
It goes on, but you get the idea.  That song, like the show, played off the lazy small town old South; the South of catfish, Aunt Bee’s homemade pies, southern drawls, and the good ole days.  I don’t want to burst your bubble here, but could be that South is gone.  Not that it was ever real.  Was it really possible there were no black people in Mayberry?

I whistled the whole song, plus the repeat at the ending.  My new friend laughed and laughed.  A few people around us smiled.

“That’s good man, you remembered it all.”


“Say.  You think you could lend me a few bucks?  So I can get me something to eat?”

“You want money from me?  You got to be kiddin’.  Here I was just about to ask you for money cause I whistled your song.  That’s just wrong man.”

He laughed again.  I had to admit he had a great laugh.

“Hey man, you obviously the one with the money.  Look at me.  I got nothin’.  You just parked that nice car down there.  Walking down the street, whistlin’, all happy like.  Just sayin’.  Thanks for the song mister, but you could help me out here.  If you don’t that’s OK too.”

I gave him two ones.  He shook my hand while laughing more, thanked me, and walked back towards the fountain.  A good laugh goes a long ways.

I turned into Jim N Nicks BBQ there on 11th avenue. I was looking for a southern joint. A hole in wall.  I didn’t get it, and I knew immediately. 

Jim N’ Nicks had merchandise displayed on a nice rack as soon as I walked in.  Black baseball caps with white letters in a fancy font for $20.  Hip tee shirts.  Bags of cheese biscuit mix in unbleached muslin bags for $6.  Summer Grillin’ Packs of bottled sauces for $40.  Joints don’t have slick stuff like that.  Corporations do.  I almost turned around, but then I saw the handles of what looked like a good selection of draft craft beer at the bar. 
While Jim N’ Nicks did start in an old pizza parlor on Clairmont Avenue in Birmingham in 1985, it now has 34 restaurants in 7 states.  Its website says it has become a Southern Institution.  I’m not sure I agree.  Websites say all kinds of stuff.  The food does the serious talking.

I had the southern deviled eggs, smoked riblets (something like rib tips without the gristle) cole slaw and baked beans with a local unremarkable ale.  I can’t say it was bad.  The deviled eggs were sweet but bland.  I was expecting more of a mustard zip.  The cole slaw didn’t stand out in any way and the beans could have been smokier.

But while sides matter, a lot I think, the real measure of a BBQ joint is the pork. The batch of pork I ate had the good smoke taste that only comes with a dry rub made with a lot of spice flavors, but it was strangely not well cooked.  It was done mind you, but it lacked that fall apart soft texture I thought was coming.  Maybe the slab of ribs would have been different. I tried their sauces, which were good, but overall I was underwhelmed.  I’d go back if I didn’t have the time to look for something better, but I don’t think I will anytime soon.  The nearest Jim N’ Nicks is in Nashville anyway.

I’d brought the atlas with me.  As I finished my ale I looked for a two lane highway to Montgomery.  It looked like Route 31, which turned into Route 3, was my best bet but danged if it didn’t keep crossing 65.  Seemed like I couldn’t get away from that big southern highway no matter what.

While crisscrossing the Interstate, Route 3 took me through Calero, Jemison, Clanton, Cooner, and Pine Level.  I’d wished I had gotten to Clanton of a morning, because they had what looked to be a good little independent donut place called “Lickin’ Good Donuts.”  I’d yet to find locals to talk to in any extended way, and I was anxious to see what they were thinking about politics and the direction America was headed.

When I got to Montgomery it wasn’t easy finding a place for the night.  There must have been something going on in town, or the legislature was in session.  Montgomery is Alabama’s capitol after all.   Everything seemed over priced or full, but I finally found one of those “suites” place with little kitchenettes.  Odd that the room was so cheap, plus it offered a dinner buffet in the price.

The crowd in the breakfast/dinner area was seriously preoccupied.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was looking at their phone.  Phone booths may be a thing of the past, but we have created walls around ourselves when using our smart phones, without talking now, that separate us just as much as those little enclosures ever did.

If you watch people on their phones, which I do, you can see the emotion of their silent conversations.  Some smile while texting away, others laugh, and just as many frown, hunch over, and frantically respond to god knows what kind of news is coming their way on the tiny screen with the little letters.  We’re living in our heads now more than ever I’d say, not that I’m much different.

I had a couple of tacos and a lemonade and called it a night.  I’d seen a lot that day, all by myself, and I had a lot to think about.  Before I plugged in my laptop and began researching Fred Shuttlesworth, I looked up Lickin’ Good Donuts for the sheer hell of it.  Turns out they are a Limited Liability Corporation operating in at least three states with I don’t know how many locations.  I swear I’m losing my eye for small business.

Friday, April 5, 2019

A Hero of Birmingham

Birmingham Alabama is entirely a post civil war city of the South.  It was strategically established in 1871 at the intersection of two railroad lines.  In 1880, fifteen years after the end of the civil war, Birmingham’s population was only 3,086.  Twenty years later, in 1900, it had grown to 12 times that size (38,000).  In 1930 the population swelled to 260,000 and it peaked in 1960 at 341,000.

Birmingham’s growth was fueled by an influx of African Americans who fled the fields of the old agrarian rural south, escaped the new business model for cotton growing-sharecropping, and moved to the city.  Birmingham slowly developed into the Pittsburgh of the South, using nearby coal and iron ore deposits.  Its steel industry was symbolized at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair by a 55 foot tall cast iron statue “Vulcan,” now located in Birmingham.

Black urban residents of Birmingham found work as miners, foundry workers, domestic workers, barbers, pastors and more.  Segregation in an odd way helped create the fabric of a new urban black community.  At the heart of that community were black churches. Those black families arriving to Birmingham may have been poor, but they lived as free men and women in a new city and a new South.

After the civil war and the emancipation of the slaves a new system of control replaced the relationship between black slave with white slave owner.  The racial divide never narrowed, in fact many historians believe it widened.  Segregation hardened, discrimination held strong, and a new means of controlling America’s black citizens emerged, white terrorism.  Birmingham would later earn the nickname Bombingham during the Civil Rights Movement due to 50 dynamite explosions that occurred in the city between 1947 and 1965. All but a handful of those crimes went unsolved by local authorities.

While America as a whole grew more liberal in its views on racial equality, led in theory if not practice by the North, communities throughout the South dug in their heels.  Black citizens of America living in places like Birmingham grew more defiant in demanding justice and equal treatment, and as they did a faction of Birmingham’s white citizens grew more violent in their response.  That violence, and the rhetoric that supported it, was epitomized by the Ku Klux Klan. 

The murderous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church was the logical culmination of a long process of lawless terror in Birmingham perpetrated by whites against the black community.

After encountering Fred Shuttlesworth’s likeness cast in bronze outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, I went inside to learn more about the real man.

Fred came to Birmingham from rural Alabama at age 31 to become pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in 1953.   I was two years old when he began his work at that church.  Fred was one of the new black preachers in the South who risked alienating members of his congregation by spending as much or more time working on “the movement” as he did with weddings, funerals, and other traditional church functions.

By 1956 he was membership chairman of the Alabama chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) until the Alabama legislature outlawed that organization from operating within the state.  In response, he and Ed Gardner established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) that same year to take up their important work.

The ACMHR raised almost all of its funds from local sources at mass meetings.  Fred Shuttlesworth led those meeting with his fiery rhetoric.  Money poured in.
The ACMHR demanded the City of Birmingham hire black police officers.  When the city ignored their demands they sued.  When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional in Montgomery, Alabama Shuttlesworth announced the ACMHR would challenge segregation laws in Birmingham with large demonstrations and another lawsuit on December 26, 1956.

On Christmas night, December 25, 1956 “unknown” persons tried to kill Shuttlesworth by detonating sixteen sticks of dynamite placed under his bedroom window   Shuttlesworth somehow escaped unhurt even though his house was heavily damaged.  A police officer, know to belong to the Ku Klux Klan, told Shuttlesworth as he emerged out of the rubble

“If I were you I’d get out of town as quick as I could.”

Fred Shuttlesworth responded by saying

“Go tell your Klan brethren I wasn’t raised to run.  If God could keep me through this then I’m here for the duration.”

Fred Shuttlesworth was fearless but apparently aware of the risk he ran.  Other activists were mystified by his willingness to accept  death, and his vow to “kill segregation or be killed by it.”  He pushed, even antagonized, his colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement by asking them to take a more active role in leading the fight against segregation.  He warned them that “history would not look kindly on those who gave flowery speeches but did not act on them.”

And yet for all his aggression Rev. Shuttlesworth embraced the philosophy of nonviolence as exemplified by lunch counter demonstrations, economic boycotts, and sit ins.  In 1957, Shuttlesworth along with Martin Luther King of Atlanta, Georgia, Ralph Abernathy from Montgomery, Alabama and other black leaders from Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and states throughout the south founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  They adopted a motto to underscore their commitment to nonviolence “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.”

Fred Shuttlesworth and his wife Ruby attempted to enroll their own children in a previously all-white public school in Birmingham in 1957, and were attacked by a mob of Klansmen.  The Birmingham Police were nowhere to be seen.  That mob beat Shuttleworth with chains and brass knuckles in the street while someone stabbed his wife.  One of their assailants that day was Bobby Cherry, who would be convicted in 2002 on four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison for his part in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Shuttlesworth drove himself and his wife to the hospital.  The Shuttlesworth children, having witnessed their parents’ public beating, were outraged.  At the hospital Fred instructed his children to forgive their assailants, while rededicating themselves to end segregation through non- violent confrontation.

Shuttlesworth participated in sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in 1960 and took part in helping, somewhat reluctantly, the Freedom Rides sponsored by CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) in 1961.  When consulted about the rides he warned that Alabama was extremely volatile.  He thought other actions could be taken that were less dangerous.  Despite that, the rides continued. 

After the Riders were badly beaten and nearly killed in Birmingham during their ride there, he sent deacons from his church to pick up the riders from a hospital in Anniston.  Shuttlesworth took in the Freedom Riders at the Bethel Baptist Church, providing them sanctuary and allowing them to recuperate after the violence that had occurred earlier in the day.  Attorney General Robert Kennedy, anxious to see the Freedom Rides come to a peaceful conclusion, gave Shuttlesworth his personal phone number in case the Freedom Riders needed Federal support. 

When Shuttlesworth and the Riders prepared to leave Birmingham and reached the Greyhound Terminal, they found themselves stranded as no bus driver was willing to drive the group into Mississippi. Shuttlesworth stuck with the Riders and called Kennedy. Prompted by Shuttlesworth, Kennedy tried to find a replacement bus driver but even his efforts proved unsuccessful. The Riders then wisely decided to take a plane and fly over Mississippi to their final destination of New Orleans. Shuttlesworth helped them get to the airport and onto the plane.  Fred proved indispensable to any of the movement’s actions taking place in Birmingham. 

Working through the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King brought a new level of  non-violent confrontation to Birmingham in the spring of 1963.  I was 11.  An effective economic boycott of white Birmingham businesses began in April, along with daily protests.  These actions were of such a scale and frequency that national and international news sources began daily coverage of the events.

On May 2nd plans were enacted to begin the Children’s Crusade.  Thousands of children, primarily teen-agers, left the 16th Street Baptist Church in groups, heading throughout the city to engage in peaceful protests.  One of their goals was to engage the Mayor of Birmingham in talks. They marched to a park near the 16th Street Baptist church where they summoned the mayor to speak to them.  They were not met with a peaceful response.  Hundreds of minor children were arrested, hauled off to jail, and detained.

The next day, May 3rd, more children took their place.  On this day, the Birmingham police and fire departments responded differently.  They turned fire hoses on the demonstrators, and set police dogs upon them.  National TV networks aired that grainy black and white footage of institutional government violence inflicted on young black citizens of Birmingham on news shows all across America.  Many believe the tide against segregation in America reached a tipping point that day.

On May 3, 1963 I was an eleven year old kid sprawled in front of a fuzzy television set in a farmhouse in Illinois.  We had finished milking the cows and I was watching the news while Mom fixed supper.  Dad was sitting at his desk in the other room. 

“Hey Dad.  Look at this.”

I turned up the volume to catch more of the sounds of screams and chaos pictured on the screen.  Kids were being knocked down by powerful jets of water. Dad walked in and stood behind me. Our eyes were glued to the images on the screen.

“Where’s this?”

“Birmingham Alabama.”

The sound of loud barking came into the living room.  Policemen were letting dogs lunge at black boys trying to get away.  One dog caught a kid’s arm and wrestled him to the ground. 

“Those are German Shepherds,” I said.

A boy in Danvers had teased a neighbor’s German Shepherd which was on a chain, poked at him with a stick they said, and the dog got a hold of him and mauled him.  The owner shot the dog and the boy had operations.  His mouth was misshapen, his eye socket pulled down on one side.

The police were letting those same dogs loose on kids in Birmingham. 

“Jesus," Dad said.  "They’re  kids.  What did they do?”

“Nothing.  They were in the park on a school day.”

On May 5th even larger crowds of protesters gathered outside the Birmingham jail where children were still being held.  News coverage continued. 

On May 10th city businesses agreed to begin desegregating downtown department stores and businesses.  Desegregation had won a major battle on the streets of Birmingham Alabama.  The Civil Rights Movement would never again be ignored.

That effective anti-segregation demonstration and countless others that preceded it resulted in President John F. Kennedy introducing into Congress the legislation that became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a law that was intended to end segregation in public accommodations throughout the United States.  It, along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, were the largest legislative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.  When meeting with Reverend Martin Luther King, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and others the day the Civil Rights bill was introduced President Kennedy stated,

“But for Birmingham, we would not be here today.”

There in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute I watched that same black and white footage I had viewed 56 years earlier on an old TV not unlike the one we had in our farmhouse.  I remember that day in 1963 clearly.  So do many more I am sure, including some who were there.

Near the exit of the Institute is a large set of windows facing the park where the Children’s Crusade took place that day, where children were knocked down by fire hoses and attacked by dogs.  Under the window was this plaque, one among many telling the story of that day.  It was the words of a mother concerned for her child.  I sat on a bench and read it.  You can learn a lot in a short time.  I had no idea how many events crucial for the Civil Rights Movement happened in Birmingham.

“I was just across the street and could see my son and the other children when they came out of the church.  I ran to him and told him ‘They have dogs up there today, and they have water.  He said “We know it.  We’re going anyway.’ ”

-Yvonne Turner

Where did those young Birmingham black kids get such courage?  I think they got it from listening to the words of Fred Shuttlesworth, and watching him live his life among them.  How many of us would be so brave?