‘Rattlesnakes Don’t Commit Suicide’

This Juneteenth, the life of unsung civil rights hero Fred Shuttlesworth should be a clarion call to the biblical activism we still need to advance racial justice in America.

In February, I preached one of the Black History Month sermons at Zion Baptist Church, a traditional Black church in Cincinnati. After the service, Judge Cheryl Grant, a longtime congregant, thanked me for delving into the legacy of civil rights advocate Fred Shuttlesworth.

Grant had been very close with the Shuttlesworth family after they moved from Birmingham to Cincinnati in 1961, and she was working on a documentary about him with filmmaker Mark Vikram Purushotham and biographer Andrew M. Manis. Her personal testimony about Shuttlesworth and his story of redemptive action has been more than inspiring for me, and now I’d like to share his story with a wider audience.

Shuttlesworth is an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. A cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he faced and ultimately outwitted Birmingham’s infamous commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, to advance racial justice in one of America’s most obstinately segregated environments.

What’s been most interesting to me about Shuttlesworth is how he personified the mixture of Christian orthodoxy and freedom fighting that characterized the primary stream of the Black church’s social action tradition. As a pastor and leader, he called himself a biblicist and an actionist, meaning he had a devout faith in the authority of Scripture while believing right doctrine compelled the Christian into social action.

Shuttlesworth knew preaching against white supremacy wasn’t enough. The church also had to get out of their seats if they wanted social change (James 2:14–26).

His biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out, by Manis, recalls Shuttlesworth’s excitement …

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