A legend of civil rights era reflects on turbulent times

March 17, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

AS I SHOOK hands with the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, it occurred to me that I had met the gentleman several times before.

Not in person, of course. March 8, when Shuttlesworth and I exchanged greetings in the lobby of the University of Maryland University College's conference center, was our first face-to-face meeting. Shuttlesworth didn't know me from a Texas cactus plant. But I had met him several times, in the books about the civil rights era that are part of my home library.

There was Shuttlesworth in the late civil rights attorney William Kunstler's autobiography Deep In My Heart; on no fewer than 48 pages of Taylor Branch's Parting The Waters: America In The King Years, 1954-63; being lauded by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in his autobiography Ready For Revolution as "the adult figure that commanded a respect bordering on awe from the students;" in biographies of civil rights activists Viola Liuzzo and Robert Franklin Williams, and in the autobiography of James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality in the early 1960s.

Is it any wonder that words like "historical," "icon" and "legend" have been mentioned whenever Shuttlesworth's name comes up? Shuttlesworth said he has heard them all, but he's not impressed.

"I don't feel historical," he said after we'd moved to a room in the UMUC conference center. "I don't feel like an icon. I don't feel like a legend."

Shuttlesworth was at UMUC to give an address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public schools. He was in Maryland last week, some 40 miles south of Baltimore, the day before hundreds of this city's students took to the streets to tell their elders, loudly and clearly, that they didn't appreciate how the $58 million school system budget deficit was hurting their education.

It was Shuttlesworth who was instrumental 41 years ago in organizing the students who left schools in Birmingham, Ala., to tell their elders, loudly and clearly, that segregation was immoral and unjust.

"Over 3,000 kids went to jail," Shuttlesworth recalled. "It may have been closer to 4,000. The Birmingham battle wasn't won by men and women. It was won by those kids -- high school and junior high school."

Those were the demonstrations where Birmingham's public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, had fire hoses and police dogs turned on demonstrators. The Rev. Martin Luther King was jailed and Shuttlesworth was hospitalized after police brutally pinned him against a wall. Afterward, as Shuttlesworth lay in the hospital -- "sedated with three hypos," he remembered -- King and Burke Marshall, a representative from the Justice Department, grew skittish and thought about calling off the demonstrations.

"I told King and Marshall not to call them off," said Shuttlesworth, known as a nonviolent but militant and uncompromising minister, "or I'd leave them with 4,000 kids in the street."

Birmingham was just one of the battlefields that sprang up in the new era Shuttlesworth believes started May 17, 1954, the day Brown was handed down.

"To me, [Brown] was the turning point," Shuttlesworth said. "I will never forget the moment I walked down to the post office and saw the newspaper headline: `Supreme Court declares segregation illegal.' It was the beginning of the Second Reconstruction." Recalling the 1857 Dred Scott decision, when the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that black folks had no rights that white folks were bound to respect, Shuttlesworth continued:

"It was God speaking through the court against the edict that no man had the right to say another man had no rights he was bound to respect."

It was hard to disagree with this old warrior of the civil rights movement, although I'm on record as saying the Brown decision was overrated, didn't do nearly all that its supporters claim it did and, given the state of Baltimore's schools, might even be considered a failure within these city limits.

But I was seven months' shy of my third birthday when the decision came down. I caught the tail end of segregation. Shuttlesworth, born in 1922, saw all too much of the real thing.

"I remember I was at a convention in Philadelphia in 1952," Shuttlesworth said. "I walked about a mile and a half, looking for the colored restroom. Finally I asked a man where a colored restroom was. He said, `Sir, we don't have those things up here.'"

Is it any wonder he was filled with joy on May 17, 1954?

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