Interview with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth


Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth:

Why didn't it work? Well, I wrote the principle of our movement and I said you can outlaw a movement, but you cannot outlaw the determination in people's minds and hearts to be free. I don't think you can do it. Then, now, anytime. You can keep a man in prison, but so long as you don't imprison his mind, you can't imprison his mind, he has to do that. By accepting the walls, actual or imagined. And freedom is something that I think people will always aspire to. And when you tell people they can't have it, and this was a state in effect saying, you can't hope. You can't kill hope in people's minds and therefore we were determined. So it was on this that the Alabama Christian Movement was organized. And maybe I should say it here, I was the NAACP Membership Chairman, and, I was holding, I remember a membership meeting when this Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff came in with a roll of paper that looked liked it roll out half the room down to the floor, and he had a pistol with a shiny belt looked like it was the longest belt I I'd ever seen. He said, "You're outlawed, you can't do this, you can't do that." And, of course, I didn't accept it, I told him "I doubt if you're going to make this stick." And he said, "Well, you're outlawed." I guess the thing that got me was that people started calling up see, remember I was well known at this time, from all over, people saying "What can we do, what can we do? Can we send things to New York?" Well, we couldn't collect membership, we couldn't do anything. And the Board of People, NAACP Board they were outlawed, our attorney Shores said, "Well we really can't do anything, we're outlawed." I said, "We're going to have to do something." He said, "Well, you'll be in contempt." I said, "Well, we have to be in contempt." He said, "If you get in jail for contempt, you can't get out." I said, "Well, then somebody has to go to jail." And, meanwhile, people for [unintelligible] next three or four days, what can we do, what can we do, that, that's drummed into my consciousness and I remember Friday morning, or Saturday morning, I believe it was, before June 5th because we called our first mass meeting on June 5th, I sat up in the bed three o'clock in the morning wide awake. That, that what shall we do was just drumming in my conscience. And it looked like to me God or something said to me, "you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." I knew then instantaneously, it was God telling me I had to call a mass meeting and get people organized, so I decided that Saturday to call a mass meeting and ask the Negroes if they wanted to organize for freedom. I knew we'd be in contempt and I expected to get arrested. This was frightening, it hadn't been done in Alabama nor the South - every radio program, TV program, every 15 minutes, Rev. F. L. Shuttlesworth, 3191 North 29th Avenue, that's telling the Klan where to put the bomb. Birmingham is north and south. Let's call a mass meeting, and this went on from Saturday until Tuesday night. Just say hear Pastor of the Church, 16th Street at that time, was a famous preacher and he was nervous too, so he called me up and told him the Lord told him to tell me to call that meeting off. I wasn't quite as nonviolent then as I am now. I, I said to him, "Well, Doctor, when did the Lord start sending my messages to you?" Because I knew he was afraid. That was about nine o'clock in the evening. But 11:30 that night, I recall it, there was my picture on TV, radio, everything was blaring out Rev. F. L. Shuttlesworth, Negro Minister, 3191 North 29th Avenue, has called a mass meeting, and he called me back at the same time that was on, he said, "Well, I've been praying. The Lord told me to tell you he really wants you to call it off." And I said, "Well, Doctor, I want to be respectful, but you go back and tell the Lord that I think he told me to call it on. And the only reason I'm going to call it off is he'll have to come down himself in person and tell me to call it off. He'll have to bring the identifying marks, his pierced in his side, nail prints in his hands." And so the meeting went on. That Tuesday night June 5th, you couldn't get to the church for blocks around. Negroes came with oh, fervor, and I gave one of those rip-roaring speeches and, they elected me president and from there we went on every Monday night and then many times every night during the week once we had things that happened. That's how the Birmingham movement got, people had somebody they could trust, and after the bomb blast went off this is how I think that God crystallized the movement and I didn't run away, I didn't back up. In fact, my board wanted me the next day after the bombing on December now, Christmas Eve. Night, Christmas night. They said, "We ought to stop and think this thing out." I said, "There's nothing to think out. We said we're going to ride and we ride we do what we say for a change." So we rode the buses and over 250 people got arrested, I guess and joined desegregated riding.**