Birmingham, 1956-1979: The History That We Made

Black and white photo showing two people

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 1, "Behind Closed Doors." Find more from that issue here

In the civil rights movement of the 1950s, Birmingham, Alabama became known as the “Johannesburg of North America.” Perhaps the most rigidly segregated city in the country, Birmingham even made it against the law for whites and blacks to play checkers together. The total pattern of segregation was enforced by police action and vigilante terror.

On September 9, 1957, the first attempt was made to desegregate Birmingham schools. The Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and his wife Ruby took two of their daughters and one other student to Phillips High School. There they were attacked by a mob. 

Shuttlesworth, now pastor of Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, recently recalled the day and events that led up to it, and discussed what has happened since. Following are excerpts from what he said.


In Alabama, we had a thing called the Pupil Placement Law. The School Board could test students and decide what school to put them in. It was a subterfuge to keep blacks out of white schools. We decided we had to challengee that, and we got petitions signed, parents asking that their children be admitted to white schools. Nine parents signed them - it took a great of courage. The people knew they were risking their jobs and maybe their lives, and certainly they were going to harassed and get threatening calls, and all that.

School officials were evasive, so decided to try to enroll our childrenl. Frankly, I didn't expect them to let them in, but we wanted to make a test to get the law into court.

So we went that morning - all in one car. There was my wife, our two older daughters, Pat and Ruby, and Nathaniel Lee - all high school age - and Reverend J .S. Phifer.

When we got there, we saw more Klansmen than police - 15 or 20 white men milling around. I got out. My wife got out. One of the kids, Ruby, attempted to get out, but someone slammed the car door on her foot. Then the men jumped on me. One of them said: ''This is the son of a bitch; if we kill him, it'll be all over."

As one of them struck me, I heard a policeman say, "Now you ought not to bother him" - sort of petulant-like, almost sweet - not trying to stop the man at all. I think the police let those people get to me that day. I'll go to glory with that. I think the system wanted the mob to get to me that day; I really feel that was designed to have been my day.

I remember being hit with brass knuckles, and one guy was hitting me with a bicycle chain, and then they were pulling me away from the car. One after another, they were hitting me; I recall being knocked down two or three times. My consciousness was being dulled; I was seeing more gray than light. But someway I had the presence of mind to know that I had to get back to that car, that this just wasn't the place for me to die.

I discerned where the car was and plunged toward it. I believe it was Reverend Phifer who pulled me in. While it was going on, I could see Ruby, my wife, and she had her purse in the air, trying to use it to ward them off. She had been stabbed in the hip, but she didn't know it until later when it began to stain.

We took off through the mob, straight to the hospital. I remember lying there, like a skinned pig, bruised, most of the skin rubbed off my face. And people kept passing by, looking. Of course, everybody who worked in the hospital then was white; the only blacks were cleaning floors, menial jobs.

But I was calm as you please, and as people came by, I'd just smile. There were two nurses in the room, and one of them said: "l 'd be damned if I'd let somebody beat me up like this .... What you trying to prove?" And I said: "You wouldn't understand, but someday you will." And they x-rayed me over and over, and the doctor just couldn't understand why I didn't have a fractured skull. And I said: "Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so He gave me a hard head."

He wanted me to stay in the hospital a few days, but there was going to be a mass meeting that night, and people were going to be mad. I knew I had to be there. It would have been tragic if violence had broken out in the movement; it would have dissipated the movement, I'm convinced of that. So I went to the church - I remember we had to go through a sea of people to get there. And I sat on the edge of the stage; I couldn't stand up very well, and I said:

"Now I want everybody to be calm. It happened to me, it didn't happen to you, and if I'm not mad, I don't see why you should get mad. I don't want any violence. We have to control ourselves and keep on fighting."

Birmingham, 1963: “The Opportunities Daddy Fought For” 

When token desegregation finally came to Birmingham in 7963, it was too late for Pat and Ruby Shuttlesworth, or even for their younger brother and sister, Fred, Jr., and Carolyn. For five years, starting in 1956, the family lived in a virtual state of siege, their home under constant guard. In 1967, they moved to Cincinnati, where Shuttlesworth accepted a new pastorate. For the next decade, he commuted back to Birmingham to continue leading the movement there, while the family tried to build a new life.

Mrs. Shuttlesworth was never in good health after the stabbing at Phillips and the nervous strain of life in Birmingham. She died in 1977 at the age of 48. Meantime, the children all earned advanced degrees and became teachers.

Ruby and Pat now both live in Cincinnati suburbs where their four children attend desegregated schools. Ruby teaches in a desegregated suburban school, and Pat teaches in a mostly black inner-city school. Recently, they too looked back to that day at Phillips in 1957 and talked about what it meant. Excerpts follow.

Ruby: I remember when I saw the mob that morning. I just panicked, there was nothing to do, you just sat there. But I think it was worth it. My children, many children, benefit from what was done there. Somebody had to do it. I don't think I would have volunteered, but my father was committed, and I knew that wherever he went, I was okay.

And I really wanted to go to Phillips. I knew that there I could get what I needed to become the doctor I wanted to be. I went on and graduated from the black school in Birmingham, and I studied hard, but we just didn't have the facilities. I knew what a Bunsen burner was, because there was a picture of that in a book, but we had no experiments.

I entered the University of Cincinnati, took chemistry, failed it, took it again and got an A. Same thing with bacteriology. By then I realized I could never be a doctor; there was just no way to make up for that lost time. I decided to go into nursing - but I was told flatly at UC that the quota for black nurses was filled.

I was disappointed, dropped out of school for a while, but then I started to substitute teach. I loved it and went back to school to get the degrees I needed. I’m really dedicated to teaching now; I feel that this is the way I can help children take advantage of the opportunities Daddy fought for. Children are not being motivated.

Here in Cincinnati, the schools are in trouble. Where my children go, it's integrated but even there it's resegregating. It's the realtors – they have seemingly dedicated parts of the community to be black.

In the city, except for alternative schools, you can't get quality education. And I'm not talking about the way it was in the South. Here they might have better facilities, but there is a lack of caring for the child, especially black children. In Birmingham, they might not have had all the equipment to teach us with, but they made us feel our own worth. Now kids are just numbers. There's been a desegregation suit pending in Cincinnati for five years. Maybe if that is won, it'll make them stop and look at what's happening.

Seems like everybody's tried to do the least amount necessary to get by with the law. Daddy was saying the Supreme Court didn't provide any enforcement. Look at the contrast with the new law passed for the handicapped in 1975 - in that they spelled out procedures and what the school systems have to do.

Here in Cincinnati, they don't call it segregation. But your economic status places you where you are going to be. Last year, my district in the suburbs spent approximately twice as much per child as the Cincinnati school district does. And it's not just the blacks who get the least, it's the Appalachian whites, too.

Pat: We had a very tense childhood. I don't even like to look at films of Phillips High School n

it just makes me madder.

So much of those years we spent in the house - or in the yard. We w not allowed out of the yard after six o'clock. The phone rang constantly, threats. We always had the feeling that any time something could happen—police would come at two or three a.m., flashing lights. You were always watching even when nobody was coming.

And yet, today, I feel that my experiences as a child have helped handle my life situation as an adult. Things I might have been afraid of, I’m not afraid of. I can speak up and express my opinions to my administrator. And we all learned how to stay calm under pressure.

And we still believe in desegregation. I know many black parents are turned off to it now - things are hard on black children in integrated schools. But I think desegregation is the only reality of life.

You just have to deal with the difficulties, teach your children to believe in themselves. You benefit from everything you go through, and when children experience hatred and being in a classroom with white teachers who don't want to teach them, they can learn that they don't have to become like that person, they can become better than that person.

Ruby: There are going to be more difficulties in the future. When we were going to college, they were giving grants to black students all over. Not anymore. Now if I say to to a student, you can work hard and get a scholarship, I know that's just not true. They put those grants in because of the pressure, and now the pressure is off.

Really, the schools are in such a state now, all over, and not just the black schools, it's going to take something massive to solve the problem.

I truly believe that my saying those things was what kept the movement nonviolent. It solidified the calmness, the resolution, the determination of the people. And from that moment, we knew we could go on - to build the movement that eventually, six years later, shook the country and changed Birmingham forever.

At the time of the Phillips High School incident, the Birmingham civil rights movement was already reaching mass proportions. Shuttlesworth, who had emerged as its leader, was still a young man, 35. He grew up near Birmingham, later went to Alabama State College and Selma University, became a minister, and in 1953 came back to Birmingham as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.

Sometimes I try to figure out when I first realized I had to fight segregation. I guess we accepted it at one point, but I don't think I ever in my life really agreed with segregation. When I went back to Birmingham, I got active in the NAACP, became membership chairman; we were pushing people to register to vote. And then on May 26, 1956, Alabama outlawed the NAACP. The injunction prohibited even collecting a membership.

People began calling me from all around Birmingham - I was widely known - asking what we could do. And that drove me to come to grips with my conscience. It was on Saturday morning, June 2, that I sat up in bed and something said to me, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." I knew people had to know the truth, that the state was saying to them you cannot be free and you cannot even fight to be free. So I decided to call a meeting, to let the people decide.

It went out all through the press and the radio. And I remember that Saturday night, one of the scared preachers called me up and said the Lord had come to him and told him to tell me to call the meeting off. And I said, "Is that so? Now when did the Lord start sending me messages through you? You go back and tell the Lord that the meeting is on, and the only way I’ll call it off is if He comes down here and tells me Himself.”

So the meeting was held – that next Tuesday, June 5, 1956. And the people came, you couldn’t get near that church; half the people had to be turned away, people jamming the aisles. And we formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and people decided they were going to fight for freedom. We began holding mass meetings every Monday night after that. 

The new movement attacked the buses first; many people went to jail for refusing to sit in the back. Shuttlesworth’s church and home were bombed – his bed blown out from under him, but leaving him without a scratch. He has always believed he was saved to lead the movement. 

We were attacking segregation on a broad front - the train terminal, buses, the parks, everywhere. I always said that if you have a hen, you don't put her on just one egg. Segregation was destroying people from the minute they were born, in every part of their lives, down to the grave when they were buried in segregated cemeteries. So we attacked it all.

But the schools were key. I remember when the Supreme Court decision came, May 17, 1954. I heard it on the radio and went down to the post office to get a paper, and there it was: "Supreme Court Outlaws School Segregation." I felt like, now we've made it, now people will love, and the milk and honey of freedom and the Promised Land will flow in.

I’ve always believed that when children go to school together they won't have the animosity their parents have. Ours is a pluralistic society, whether we like it or not. There's white, there's black, there's Chicano; we're German, we're Polish, we're Appalachian, we're poor, we're middle class, and a few of us are rich, over-rich. But we are all people. That's the way I looked at life - still do. Where children go to school, come up together, they don't fear - why should a black man fear a white man, or vice versa? I just don't think you'd ever have had the violent animosity if this society had allowed its children always to go to school together.

So that's why we went to Phillips High School that morning. But we knew too that we couldn't desegregate the schools without a total movement. After Phillips, we filed suit, and for the next few years we were going on building the movement. Of course, as everyone knows - it's history now - it came to a climax over public accommodations. We used to say, because of the extreme nature of things there, as Birmingham goes so goes the nation. And it turned out to be that way.

In 1963, the Birmingham movement invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help organize demonstrations against segregation in public places. There followed the mass demonstrations when thousands went to jail, and the nation watched on TV as Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the demonstrators attacked with fire hoses and dogs. The movement won, and downtown Birmingham agreed to desegregate its stores and to begin hiring blacks. Meantime, the demonstrations had rocked the nation, and most historians now agree that the ultimate result of Birmingham was the Civil Rights Act of 7964.

In Birmingham itself, many struggles lay ahead - it was in that fall of 1963 that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four little black girls. But over the next years, change did permeate the city. In 1978, Birmingham finally honored Shuttlesworth. The mayor and City Council declared "Fred Shuttlesworth Day," and publicly thanked him for bringing desegregation to Birmingham. Shuttlesworth announced that someday he might move back to Birmingham to retire. At least in its parks, its stores, its restaurants, theaters, in its public places generally, Birmingham is now an integrated city. 

But not in its schools. Token school desegregation started in that fall of 1963 soon after the mass demonstrations, but in the 1970s, a process of resegregation set in.

White flight has almost done away with what desegregation there was. For instance, Phillip s High, where I was mobbed - it's now over 90 percent black. Same at another big high school, and many of the elementary schools.

I don't think it had to be that way. The first problem was a flaw in the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision was right; it was overdue. But the flaw was that the Court did not set up any machinery to implement it. I think. they should have appointed a special master to see to it that people would begin moving - someone who would have had the authority to convene the school people in a given area and tell them you must come up with a plan. "All deliberate speed" meant no speed at all without the enforcement of the Court. And even when the Supreme Court finally did try to straighten out that deliberate speed thing, they turned the implementation over to the district judges, most of whom were segregationists.

The second problem was the executive branch of government. You had President Eisenhower, who saw nothing, felt nothing, heard nothing, thought nothing and did nothing. 

I’m quite sure that had not the civil rights movement moved everything to a higher pitch we wouldn't even have the school desegregation we've got now. But the problem was that the leadership of the country never said this is right, this is what should be. The Court didn't provide enforcement, the executive didn't lead, Congress didn't do anything until we forced them to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and ever since they've been picking away at that - coming out against busing, doing this, doing that.

The result was that integration of the schools was always in limbo; you could argue a case ad infinitude, instead of going on and making it a de facto situation, immediately. I think the slow process contributed tremendously to the pattern of white flight.

But I think the movement could have turned things around, too. After the big upsurge in Birmingham in 1963, I thought this should be the next step. We should have gone on and desegregated the schools - massively, at 50 percent. I told Martin [ Luther King] and Ralph [Abernathy] this. I said we should lead the people all over the South on this issue, and we should start in Birmingham, where we had at that time total support. The people would have done anything; they were ready to fight for change, they wanted change, and they believed they could win.

I said we should go out and get people to sign petitions, to send their children to all the white schools. The law said then that you had a right to go to the school of your choice. the people would have signed; it wasn't like 1957 when many people were afraid. I believe we could have gotten 10,000 petitions, just like that. This was my idea of real integration instead of tokenism.

And I still think that if the school had been integrated like that mid-'60s, white flight would not be as meaningful as it is. All the white folks couldn't have flown, not at once. All the suburbs couldn't have been built at once. It would have created an atmosphere that it's done, and done right.

Martin and Ralph agreed with me, actually, I had a commitment from Martin at one point that this is what we would do. We could have done it and still gone into Selma on the voting rights drive. But we just never did. After Selma, there were so many pulls on us [SCLC], people wanted us to come everywhere. And we tried to do everything.

So if there was one thing that was the great mismark of the civil rights movement, it was the fact that we did not integrate the schools. That's where we missed the mark.

But if you ask me did we fail, I would say no, we did not fail. We failed as a movement to see at one point what the best next step would be. But the movement did not fail. Even with the runaround given us on education, even with all the other problems in the country today, at least we've got a foothold.

And when I think of the people who achieved that in Birmingham, I see it as a glorious age. It was the King Age, the age of little children standing up to fire hoses and the dogs. God always has to have people to work through, and He had thousands in Birmingham. I was just the leader and I personified the movement to many people. But there were many, many who took their stands – the people who signed those petitions for school integration, knowing the reprisals it would mean; the people who were brutalized by the police; the others whose homes were bombed; the thousands who finally went to jail; masses of people who had decided to be free and were willing to fight. That's what made the Birrningham movement. People, thousands of them, walking through the Valley of the Shadow and walking in such a way that history must record their valor and their courage. 

But if there is anything we should learn from history it’s the fact that if you don’t keep moving forward you’ll be perpetually going backward. 

Today, Shuttlesworth is still leading movements for justice. Recently, he went to Birmingham to announce that he would help organize a campaign to free Imani (Johnny Harris) from Death Row in Alabama. In Cincinnati this spring, he was organizing busloads of people to travel to the state capitol to protest soaring utility rates and working with a committee protesting the killing of a black youth by Cincinnati police. 

I believe there will be new mass movements in the 1980s. I believe the people are going to reassert themselves. I don't know exactly when this new drive will come. I don't know who will lead it, but it will come. Whether it is around the issue of schools ... or the utilities ... or jobs ... or whatever, it will come.

And because of the civil rights movement, we know now what can be done. Because of what we did, the country became partially awake; for a brief moment in our history, this nation was talking about what ought to be done for the poor, what ought to be done for the homeless, what ought to be done for the schools. When the new movements come, it will be easier for them because of the history that we made.