Earlier today, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth passed away after a long illness. He was 89. The Birmingham pastor was a giant in the civil rights struggle in Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s. Any obituary you might read about the man can only understate what he endured and eventually accomplished.
He was no suave public personality like other more famous civil rights leaders. He was temperamental, difficult and absolutely convinced in the righteousness of his cause. He also possessed a fearlessness that was necessary for to meet the obstacles he faced - an unceasing litany threats, beatings and bombings. Given the viciousness and violence of the battle to integrate Birmingham, he was uniquely suited to undertake the task for racial equality in the city.
In writing the story for this year's Roll Bama Roll season preview magazine on the 1959 Liberty Bowl I discovered something I found very disquieting - my understanding of the civil rights struggle was painfully thin.
Sure, I knew the names of a few places and many of the notorious incidents, but I never had sat down and tried to learn what actually happened during those tumultuous decades. And, until I did that, I was not going to ever understand what transpired with the Alabama football program that lead to its eventual integration. So I started doing a lot of reading I should have done 20 years before.
There are two books I would recommend to anyone wanting to address such a similar blind spot to this piviotal event in modern american history. The first is Frye Gaillard's "Cradle of Freedom" which outlines the entire civil rights struggle in the state and Glen Eskew's "But for Birmingham" that covers the turmoil in the city itself. Both highlight the pivotal role Shuttlesworth played in those terrible years as he strove to achieve racial equality in Alabama and, from there, the nation.
I also would suggest reading E. Culpepper Clark's "The Schoolhouse Door" which depicts the events that led to the integration of the University of Alabama itself. Shuttlesworth is a minor character in this account but, obviously, its relevance to RBR readership is clear.
Lastly, I would urge everyone to go visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and take the opportunity to learn more about the important chapter in our history. Their exhibit on the struggle is superb and I have to note that their assistance in the research for my article on the 1959 Liberty Bowl was absolutely essential.