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?


1 comment:

  1. A strong and inspiring article, Dave. Among other memories, it made me think of a day when I was teaching freshman English at NIU, sometime in the 70s. The students had just read a short essay about a woman who chose to accompany her children to the gas chamber at a Nazi concentration camp. She had turned down a chance to work and save her life. My students were silent, apathetic, and unmoved. When I asked them why, one said, "Because that's history and could never happen again."