Click here to see the entire speech in Reverend Shuttlesworth's handwriting FS_Freedom scan.pdf (1.10 mb)
In 1958 at the 131st Emancipation Celebration in Canada, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave a speech arguing that the “hour of freedom” had now arrived for African-Americans. Fifty years later, his words transport us back in time to an era, nearly one hundred years after slavery had ended, but for African-Americans an era that continued to be defined by discrimination and fear. You can hear his anguish at being denied freedom and the fervor with which he desired it.
Reverend Shuttlesworth’s speech reflects the time in which he gave it. He appealed to the audience’s intellect and morality arguing that freedom has a price but emphasizing the importance of a non-violent struggle. As one denied basic freedoms he compared the ideologies of Communism and Democracy arguing that Democracy’s survival depended on guarantees of freedom for all citizens. He pointed out the irony of man’s intellectual capacities to advance technologically while, remaining unable to overcome prejudices. Unlike other speeches of Reverend Shuttlesworth this speech could not be delivered today, but as we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, his words remind us of the value of freedom and the long struggle to obtain it in the United States.
[R]eaffirming once again my conviction that this is the Hour of freedom, and that whenever men and women of goodwill meet upon whatever occasion they meet, the chief ingredient of life to them and for them is freedom, justice, equality, humanitarianism and fair play.
The Hour of freedom for all mankind is upon us, however much some men may misread history, misjudge the present and misinterpret the future. All around the world, from the Artic regions of the North to the Tropics of the south, from the bushes and backwoods of Africa to the Isles of the Seas, men seem to have sensed the importance and possibilities of this hour, and their feet march with rhythmic tramp as they move to the cherished goal of freedom. Nothing can stop this march to freedom. It appears that the God of this universe has intervened in men’s affairs to teach them that there is but one race – the human race; and that of one blood. He hath made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. I call it a divine struggle for the…[exaltation] of the human race.
Is it not strange then that after centuries of wars, of studies, and of knowledge, that the greatest bar to human progress and happiness is the color bar? How ridiculous it is that men have learned from science how to send men over 100 miles up to orbit at nearly 18,000 miles per hour, but have not heard from the Bible to let men walk 10 blocks on earth at less than one mile per hour, without finding discrimination, segregation and in-humanitarianism?
We meet today as free men, as citizens of the two greatest democratic countries on earth. Yet we meet to gain unity in our struggle for freedom. We read in your brochure that a valiant Queen whipped out slavery with a stroke of a pen 132 years ago, but true freedom for all subjects of the Commonwealth without discrimination is not a reality today. America, with its beautiful and sacred Constitution is finding it difficult at this moment to guarantee to all its citizens the same rights and privileges. Democracy is on trial around the world, and you and I today are on the witness stand, testifying on its behalf. Communism seeks to prove by the very faults and inequalities of our system that democracy will not work.
This is a battle for men’s minds. Both Russia and the Democratic countries can shoot rockets over the seas with accuracy; can send men into outer space and bring them back again; can photograph the moon and shoot at the sun. The war is over moral and ethical practices now more than scientific or technological advances. Which system can guarantee that all men must act like brothers, and none can be masters? Which can ensure that a man’s color or origin of birth will not be a continuing obstacle throughout his life? And which can guarantee the most benefits with the less friction? The greatest good for the greatest number?
We believe in Democracy and that Democracy can best supply the answers for a confused mankind. This is why we must contend for freedom now. Time is short! This is a glorious hour for it is a dangerous and challenging hour in man’s history. The Negro’s great contribution to Society will be to prove in the 20th century that Love is the greatest force in the universe, that freedom is worth fighting for – even if some must die for it; and that there are those today who believe that spiritual weapons of faith, hope, and love with perseverance, will overcome the evil which has lasted for generations.
I stand before you today as an American, one proud of my country despite its faults. I come from one of the darkest spots on the North American continent – Birmingham, Alabama. This is the spot where over 40 bombings have occurred in 10 years, where mobs in the past have roamed with impunity, where the police in the past have been noted for brutality, where the Police Commissioner has been quoted as saying “Damn the laws, down here we make our own laws.”
In B’ham I have been in several mobs, and have been nearly killed three times at the hands of bombers or mobsters. Here is a place where it seems that justice has declared a holiday; and today I am involved in more than 30 cases either civil or criminal ranging from the lowest inferior courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.
With three other Negro Ministers, I have been sued for over 3 million dollars, and have lost a car and other valuables. All of the five other members of my family and I have developed tensions and nevous conditions as a result of the day and night strains of 6 years fighting for freedom. Like many others, we know what its like to await the sickening blast of bombs in the night, the howl of the mobs, on the commands of some officers who forget that they are servants and not masters.
Out of it all we have learned that suffering for a just cause brings redemption, and that love with non-violent persistence will make even your enemy respect you.
And so the Southern Negros have learned the key to racial progress. We have decided that now is the time; and that if now is not the time, there’ll never be another time like now. We want freedom now, not tomorrow. We have carried on in such manner that Federal Marshalls became the answer for southern mobsters, and the Justice Department became a prosecutor of law agencies which refused to do their duty.
In our quest for freedom now, we have decided to fill the jails if necessary, and to transform them from dungeons to meeting places for God’s freedom loving children. This is why I have been in jail over 20 times, and this is why Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy are in jail in Albany, GA today. We have learned that freedom is so needful. Now that we preachers are willing to preach on Sunday, walk picket lines on Monday, and go to jail on Tuesday.
This is [our] prayer in its fullest sense, and this is prayerful action. Thus the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides were not wild-eyed schemes for publicity. Neither were they dupes or persons misled by other men. They were men, like prophets of old, or the Apostles of the early Christian days, read to say to the Nero’s and the Ceasar’s, “We ought to obey God rather than man.” They were, and they are, men and women young and old- who are willing to lay their brain and bodies before the mobs or the police, as living sacrifices……
Speech delivered by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Windsor, Canada, 1958