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‘Like lambs headed for slaughter’: Shuttlesworth recounts stories from civil rights movement

Sephira Shuttlesworth speaks during Union's fifth annual Black History Month program. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
Sephira Shuttlesworth speaks during Union's fifth annual Black History Month program. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.Feb. 20, 2012 – Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth shared stories of resolution from her childhood and the life of her late husband, Fred Shuttlesworth, in the segregated South at the fifth annual Black History Month program at Union University Feb. 13.

Sephira Shuttlesworth, a Union University alumna and Jackson, Tenn., resident, addressed nearly 200 black, white and Latino students, faculty, staff and other members of the Jackson community. The program, entitled “Black Leaders in American Culture and History,” was hosted by MOSAIC, an organization led by Union students dedicated to encouraging multi-cultural understanding on campus.

As African-Americans who peacefully confronted segregation in the South during the civil rights movement, the Shuttlesworths were sustained by a confidence that they were doing God’s will, she said.

Fred Shuttlesworth, a straight-talking preacher from Birmingham, Ala. died in October 2011 at the age of 89. He, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy formed the “big three” of the civil rights movement. He was jailed time and again for challenging segregation laws peacefully.

Sephira Shuttlesworth, who married Fred Shuttlesworth in 2006, said she remembered her husband telling her about the December evening in 1956 when Ku Klux Klan members threw 16 sticks of dynamite through his bedroom window while he lay on his bed because he had announced he was going to challenge segregation laws the next day.

His house was destroyed, but he blew the dynamite dust from his nostrils and walked out unharmed, she said.

Fred Shuttlesworth told a stunned police officer who saw him leaving his bombed home, “If God can save me from this, I’m here for the duration — the war (on racism) has just begun.”

Growing up in Jackson, Sephira Shuttlesworth also became a peaceful activist for desegregation. When her mother gave Shuttlesworth and her two siblings the decision of whether or not they wanted to integrate a nearby white elementary school in 1965, it took them three minutes to decide, Shuttlesworth said.

“We just knew if Pope Elementary School was that nice on the outside, it had to be beautiful on the inside,” she said. “We were like innocent lambs headed for the slaughter.”

It took two years for Shuttlesworth to gain a friend at the school, three years to be accepted by many students — and then only because of her scholastic and athletic ability -- and four years to be joined by a large number of black students at the school because of forced integration.

In 1968, Shuttlesworth was at school when she heard King had been assassinated. For her, this was the most trying moment of the civil rights movement, she said.

“The class spun out of control as if there was a party going on,” she said. “Children who had settled into the notion that there were black people in their class ... made fun of the fact that our hero had been slain. Terry (the other black student in the class at the time) and I sat motionless, my anger brewing inside with the full knowledge that we chose to be there and that we must endure whatever came.”

The struggles had their rewards, though. Because they had decided to mediate the racial divide, Sephira Shuttlesworth and her siblings had by the late 1960s developed into leaders who had made an indelible mark on both races in their community.

Sephira Shuttlesworth continued to pursue racial reconciliation at Union, where she studied music and was highly involved on campus. She said her time at the university, though not free of discrimination, continued to develop her into a Christian who had a “heart for service” and taught her to ask the important questions in life.

At the end of her address, Shuttlesworth explained why she continues to tell stories that are now decades-old.

“You too owe it to the rest of the world to explain how God chose you, anointed you, led you and carried you through,” Shuttlesworth told the audience.

Another reason Shuttlesworth continues to tell the stories of her involvement in racial segregation is because the story is not yet complete. Both Shuttlesworth and David S. Dockery, Union University president, addressed the future of racial reconciliation in light of the trail blazed in large part by Fred Shuttlesworth.

“Fred Shuttlesworth found a way to tie his vision for racial reconciliation deeply to the gospel,” said Dockery, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights era. “Out of that gospel came his vision to tear down (racial) barriers. He was not only concerned with our reconciliation with God, but with each other.”

Dockery said a “Fred to Fred” connection recently took place in the Southern Baptist Convention. Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, La., was elected first vice president of the SBC in 2011, the first black man to hold the position in the convention’s history. Luter announced Feb. 2 he is willing to be nominated for SBC president, a nomination Dockery first suggested at the 2011 SBC annual meeting via Twitter.

“What will happen could not have happened without Fred (Shuttlesworth),” Dockery said. “It is 49 years since the events in Birmingham in 1963. Five decades later we are seeing the fruits of these labors. We pray that those at Union may have some part in being involved.”

By Samantha Adams (’13)

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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