A Major Figure of the Civil Rights Movement Hangs Up His Clerical Collar

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the icons of the civil rights movement, has retired from the ministry at the age of 84. Shuttlesworth delivered his final sermon late last month at the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati, an institution he founded 40 years ago.

Shuttlesworth led the Birmingham civil rights protests in the early 1960s and convinced Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy that Birmingham was the place where Jim Crow should be confronted head-on. In Diane McWhorter’s superb account of the Birmingham crisis, Carry Me Home,  she writes that Martin Luther King was unfocused and a plodder and that it was Fred Shuttlesworth who pushed him to greatness.

In 1956 Fred Shuttlesworth accompanied his friend and former classmate Autherine Lucy to Tuscaloosa where she attempted to integrate the University of Alabama. “It was a tremendously tense affair,” Shuttlesworth told JBHE. “All eyes of the students were upon us and we were helpless. There were several marshals, but I felt that if things had broken loose, we would have been defenseless. She was one of the bravest young women I ever met.”

Shuttlesworth, who survived numerous attempts on his life during the civil rights era, had a non-cancerous brain tumor removed in 2005, which he says hastened his decision to retire.