Trove of pictures sheds light on civil rights hero

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The Independent US

Along with Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth was one of the most important leaders in the struggle against segregation in the American South.

Now new documentation of the Rev Shuttlesworth's role has come to light in a trove of photographs, many of them never seen before, stored at the Birmingham News, the daily paper of the Alabama city that in many respects was ground zero of the civil rights movement.

The negatives - some 5,000 images covering the period from 1950 to 1965 - were discovered by Alexander Cohn, a photo intern at the paper, as he rummaged through a cupboard.

The pictures were not published at the time for various reasons. Birmingham's white establishment had little desire to wash dirty linen in public, while the paper's editors were ever afraid of further inflaming an already fraught situation.

The city was, wrote Dr King in his celebrated Letter from Birmingham Jail, "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the US". There were "more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any city in this nation," Dr King wrote.

Of this, no one had more direct experience than the Rev Shuttlesworth, organiser in 1956 of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and co-founder with Dr King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference two years later. His bravery was unbound: "I was in jail so many times, I quit counting after 20," he said. His goal was simple: "To kill segregation or be killed by it."

One photo shows him preaching at Birmingham's First Baptist Church in June 1956, another joining white passengers on a segregated bus on 26 December that year - giving no outward clue that his home had been firebombed the previous day.

In 1957 he was beaten half to death by the Ku Klux Klan after trying to enroll his children at a previously all-white school. But, in the end, the movement prevailed. One of the last photos shows him, Dr King and the Rev Abernathy at a 1965 voter registration drive, taking the opportunity offered by the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.