In 1996 Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was interviewed as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Oral History Project. As leader of the Birmingham Movement, Reverend Shuttlesworth was a prime target of hate groups. Various excerpts of his interview bring out the climate of fear and intimidation that the Klu Klux Klan created in the 1950s/60s to stop the Civil Rights Movement. His statements reveal a dysfunctional system of rule of law where the police did not protect all segments of the population and collaborated with hate groups, who along with the police acted with impunity. Reverend Shuttlesworth’s words further expose his courage and ability to forgive, demonstrating his leadership in keeping the movement alive and maintaining its non-violent character.
And all of a sudden, BOOM! The lights went out. I felt a pressure I’ve never felt before….The wall was demolished and the roof came down…The floor came out from under the bed. [I smelled] that smoke of dust [of an old] house… mixed with… acid smoke [of dynamite]…..Everyone thought I was dead. …I could hear a [police] officer say ‘I’m so sorry….I know these people and I didn’t think that they would go this far….if I were you, I would get out of town as quick as I can.‘ I said officer….go back and tell your Klan brethren that…the war is on and I’m here for the duration. …. I went and sat in back of a car….My six year old daughter curled up in my lap and looked up in my face and said, ‘they can’t kill us daddy, can they?’ I said, no darling, they can’t kill folks.
[This was Christmas night, December 25, 1956. The Movement had decided to ride the buses to push for desegregating buses in Birmingham as a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling to end segregated buses in Montgomery following the 13 month bus boycott.] The next day,…. [I told] people in the movement…we were going to ride the buses…. There was a need to do what we [said] else we would have been dead, the movement I mean. I could have been alive and yet the movement would have gone….Now… fear is something. Most of my board members, I had to order them to ride. I was moved at how fearful they were…..But we must get to the buses today…. If the Klan made their history last night, we’ll make ours for God.
In 1957, to push for the implementation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on desegregation of schools, I attempted to enroll my children at the all-white Phillips High School. This was another incident where I was right at death’s doors….. A mob had formed, members of which, really intended to kill me….they… were shouting it out, ‘this kid, this S.O.B. …. [I]t’s an amazing thing how you can submit yourself even under pressure. People must understand that faith goes much further than we believe and we understand.…. [T]he kicks, curses and slanders, people running into each other trying to do me harm; I was struck again with brass knuckles….they were holding me and pulling me and so forth; I was just stumbling to the car…One guy…was just winging that [bike] chain; he had struck me already with it once or twice. And I knew if he would hit me, I wouldn’t make it into the car….I just sort of stumbled into him and…began pulling myself up into the car….My feet were sticking out as the car pulled off. We went on over to the hospital…..I had my wits. I was calm….
My mind was on the fact that I had to get to the movement [meeting] that night. Because I knew with the tensions mounting, the police had been harassing us, and with my being mobbed I had to at least put in a presence at the movement. I felt I should …let them know what nonviolence meant to us at that moment…. The doctor examined me…quite extensively….[H]e released me reluctantly…..
[This incident had been filmed by CBS and the police were also present.] I always announced and sent the police everything that I was going to do, and I must candidly say to you that the policemen that were there were enough to have prevented what did happen, had they wanted to. [The attackers were aware of the cameras and the police but they] didn’t care…. They intended to kill…. But I wasn’t fearful….[Y]ou feel a sense of sorrow that it has to happen this way….You must understand I had no hesitation if death had come that day. I believe the Lord would be ready for me. I was more sorry for these men. You can’t understand how otherwise, sensible ordinary citizens could allow themselves to be whipped up into a mob….[Y]ou must understand that we are human beings, we are flesh and there’s something about us that’s above and beyond our flesh, our spirit….All of us could do better….Charles Billups felt the same after the Klan attacked him in 1958 and branded KKK on his stomach. He was in the hospital….and I could hear him…saying…’you know what, I feel sorry for these men...for they know not what they are doing.’
[Fear tactics were also directed at white activists. In 1957 the white Reverend, Lamar Weaver, joined a protest at the train terminal station.] My purpose was to sit in the station. That’s the victory…to actually sit in the white [waiting] room…..Lamar Weaver came in…and sat down with us. You’ve got to admire the man’s courage….[T]he policemen came in…and said ‘where’s your ticket?’ And he didn’t have one. So they put him out….Into the mob [that had collected] and the mob set on him. …They tell me they rocked his car and almost tore the canvas off….[H]e barely got away with his life…. James Peck, the white activist, who was one of the original Freedom Riders, was another haunting incident. First time I saw a human skull was James Peck’s. They had hit him with an iron pipe and just burst his flesh…..The Freedom Riders came to my place. They couldn’t go anyplace else. The police intended to turn Peck over to the Klan….There are some instances here that people don’t know about.