Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth: Minister and activist whose courage galvanised the civil rights movement

According to none other than Dr Martin Luther King, he was the bravest civil rights campaigner of all. King's magnificent oratory and insistence on non-violence set an unmatched moral example in the struggle to secure equal treatment for America's black minority. But in terms of facing white intimidation and brutality on an almost daily basis, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was unrivalled.

Three times at least he was the target of assassination attempts in Birmingham, the Alabama city that in the 1950s and 1960s was called "Bombingham" for the violence that marked the civil rights conflict there. Not only was Shuttlesworth an object of hatred for white racists; his insistence that "flowery speeches" alone were not enough drew criticism from within his own movement, as he urged more confrontational tactics than King was ready to countenance. Others accused him of putting civil rights activism ahead of his pastoral duties at Bethel Baptist Church, where he was minister.

Yet today, fittingly, it is Shuttlesworth's statue that stands outside the civil rights museum in Birmingham, a stone's throw from the 16th Street Baptist church where in September 1963 four little girls died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing that horrified the country. Without his sheer physical courage, the movement might have taken even longer to achieve its basic goal of desegregation.

Shuttlesworth was born Freddie Lee Robinson in rural Alabama, butacquired a new last name when his mother married a coalminer, William Nathan Shuttlesworth. To make a little extra money, the family engaged in sharecropping and made moonshine liquor, while his mother also worked as a maid in a white family. Shuttlesworth himself had a job at a cement plant before signing up as a civilian truck driver at a US army base in Mobile, Alabama in the later stages of the Second World War.

In 1953 Shuttlesworth became minister at Bethel Baptist, but his civil rights epiphany only came a year later, with the US Supreme Court's Brown vs Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation at schools. It was, he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, "the second biggest day of my life [the first being when he became a Christian]. I felt like I was a man, like I had rights."

In July 1955 – months before Rosa Park's historic refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery the state capital – Shuttlesworth took his first steps in social activism, petitioning the Birmingham city council to hire black police officers. The initiative came to naught, but a career was set.

Soon Shuttlesworth had launched the Alabama Christian Movementfor Human Rights to replace the NAACP, after America's most venerable civil rights organisation had been banned in the state. One of the ACMHR's first moves was a demand for the desegregation of buses in Birmingham, after a bus boycott in the wake of the Parks protest had achieved that goal in Montgomery.

Shuttlesworth set a deadline of 26 December for the city to comply; otherwise, he said, blacks would sit in the front seats regardless. Instead, a bomb on Christmas night exploded at his home. By a miracle Shuttlesworth escaped with minor injuries. "The bomb had my name on it, but God erased it," he told his congregation. A few days before, he had delivered a sermon in which he declared that, "If it takes being killed to get integration, I'll do just that thing. For God is with me all the way."

The following year, along with King, Ralph Abernathy and others, Shuttlesworth helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organisation that would become the spearhead of the civil rights movement across the country. The organisation was committed to non-violence. But for its leaders, civil disobedience was dangerous enough. In September 1957, white vigilantes beat Shuttlesworth with bicycle chains and baseball bats when he sought to enrol his two daughters at an all-white school.

Though it did not seem so at the time, a turning point that would hasten the end of segregation in Birmingham came two months later, with the election of Eugene "Bull" Connor as the city's sinisterly titled "Commissioner for public safety". A Klan member and arch-segregationist was now in charge of Birmingham's police. "We ain't gonna segregate [sic] no niggers and whites together in this town," Connor proclaimed, and used waterhoses, dogs and riot police to prove it.

But his brutal methods, that included an accusation that Shuttlesworth staged the 1956 Christmas night bombing to attract sympathy, proved his downfall. In early 1961 a CBS television documentary, Who Speaks for Birmingham?, described Shuttlesworth as "the man most feared by southern racists and the voice of the new militancy among Birmingham negroes." The world's media flocked to Alabama to chronicle Connor's excesses. Appalled at the damage inflicted on Birmingham's image, the local business community broke with the police chief and moved to speed desegregation. With his ruthlessness, Connor brought about what he was desperate to prevent.

Shuttlesworth by then had moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, first as pastor of the city's Revelation Baptist Church between 1961 and 1966, and then of the Greater New Light Baptist Church, from which he retired in 2004. But he remained deeply involved in the battle for civil rights, constantly returning to Birmingham to futher the cause.

He was a prime mover in "Project C" ("C" as in "confrontation"), the campaign of disobedience and peaceful demonstration that goaded Connor into his over-reaction. In 1965 he helped organise the three marches from Selma to Montgomery to protest against voting discrimination in Alabama. A few months later President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. In theory at least, the civil rights movement to which Shuttlesworth had given so much, had achieved its goals.

In 1999, Andrew Manis published an excellent biography of Shuttlesworth, his reputation by then secure as one of the "big three" of the civil rights movement, alongside King and Abernathy. The book's title, A Fire You Can't Put Out, was a riff on Shuttlesworth's reply after the police had tried to break up a meeting at Bethel Church back in the late 1950s, with a false alarm that the building was ablaze. "Y'all think it's a fire in here? You know there ain't no fire here," he told them. "The kind of fire we have in here you can't put out with hoses and axes!"

Rupert Cornwell

Freddie Lee Robinson (Fred Shuttlesworth), minister and civil-rights activist: born Mulga, Alabama 18 March 1922; Minister, Bethel Baptist Church, Birmingham 1953-1961; formed Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights 1956; co-founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference 1957, Secretary 1958-1970; married 1942 Ruby Lanette Keeler (divorced 1970; two sons, two daughters), 2006 Sephira Bailey; died Birmingham, Alabama 5 October 2011.

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