Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights Leader: 1922 – 2011

By October 7, 2011

This past Wednesday, our nation lost one of its foremost advocates for civil rights as the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth died in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 89. The Reverend Shuttlesworth’s brave stand for legal equality for all Americans, hallmarked by incredible courage in the face of violence, helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s obituary in The New York Times provides a sense of his tenacity and toughness:

In the years before 1963 he was arrested time and again — 30 to 40 times by his count — on charges aimed at impeding peaceful protests. He was repeatedly jailed and twice the target of bombs.

In one instance, on Christmas night 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. "The wall and the floor were blown out," Ms. McWhorter wrote, "and the mattress heaved into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet."

When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, "Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head."

Here at FIRE, we often cite in our letters another crucial part of Shuttlesworth’s civil liberties legacy, the 1969 Supreme Court case of Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham. In that case, Shuttlesworth challenged his arrest (and that of more than 50 others) under a Birmingham statute that outlawed participation in parades on city streets, if the Birmingham City Commission had not first issued a permit. The statute allowed the Commission to deny a permit if "in its judgment the public welfare, peace, safety, health, decency, good order, morals or convenience require that it be refused." Shuttlesworth’s application for a permit had been repeatedly denied.

In finding the Birmingham statute to be an unconstitutional restriction on First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court found that the statute granted the Commission "virtually unbridled and absolute power to prohibit any ‘parade,’ ‘procession,’ or ‘demonstration’ on the city’s streets or public ways." As a result, it served as an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, because "a law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license, without narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority, is unconstitutional."

FIRE often reminds campus administrators of this holding. For the great utility and clarity of this constitutional principle, we have the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth to thank.