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A journey through history along the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail

Travels with Deb

Debbie Stone | Mar 20, 2017, 6 a.m.
Sculpture of praying ministers at Kelly Ingram Park. Photo by Debbie Stone

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Historian and educator Dr. Martha Bouyer stands outside Birmingham's historic Bethel Baptist Church. Photo by Debbie Stone

“It began at Bethel.” With these words, historian and educator Dr. Martha Bouyer proceeded to take me back in time to the birth of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. “The Movement,” as its members called it, started at Bethel Baptist Church, under the steerage of the church’s fiery pastor, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. It was Shuttlesworth who organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) after the State of Alabama declared the NAACP a foreign corporation which could no longer exist. This was in response to the Reverend’s refusal to turn over the names of the local members of the organization.

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Bethel Baptist Church, under the helm of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, was ground zero in the fight for civil rights in Birmingham. Photo by Debbie Stone

To many, Shuttlesworth’s name might be unfamiliar. I was unaware of this man’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement until I visited Birmingham on an historical tourism trip. Shuttlesworth emerged as a “hidden figure,” who was often shadowed by other such well-known leaders of the time as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy. But, it was Shuttlesworth who initially galvanized the black community with the aim of dismantling the city’s segregation ordinances. He was the spark that created the flame.

The ACMHR was headquartered at Bethel Baptist Church. Built in 1926, this National Historic Landmark church and “American Treasure” served as a staging ground for the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement from 1956 to 1961. The church still stands within the neighborhood of Collegeville, despite having been the target of three separate bombings by white extremists. It withstood these attacks without ever missing a Sunday morning worship service, testament to the strength and enduring spirit of its pastor and his congregants. Shuttlesworth, who was known as the “Wild Man from Birmingham” by his colleagues, was the subject of countless attacks and beatings, and jailed more than any other civil rights minister. He is also said to have taken more cases to the U.S. Supreme Court than any other individual in the history of the court.

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Reverend Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy were prominent figures in the fight for civil rights. Photo by Debbie Stone

Every Monday night during these turbulent years, ACMHR mass meetings were held at Bethel and dozens of other churches scattered across the city. Ushers would take up collections to be used for bail to release those imprisoned for infractions against the Birmingham Segregation Codes. This could be anything and everything including talking too loud, “reckless eyeballing,” vagrancy, using the wrong toilet facilities or drinking fountains, or occupying the incorrect seating area on a streetcar or restaurant. Those convicted would go to jail and if they could not pay bail, they would end up in the “convict leasing” program, having to work their sentence off via hard labor. It was slavery by another name, as the offenders’ costs would continue to mount under various pretenses, with no end in sight to their imprisonment.

ACMHR was the strongest of the local civil rights movements, eventually merging together to form an umbrella group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under King’s leadership. Shuttlesworth invited King to join mass marches because King’s oratory attracted national media coverage. Birmingham became the catalyst for the most dramatic social and legal changes of the 20th century. The ensuing demonstrations and violence that occurred in this city ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal access to public accommodations in America.

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