“Courage is one thing. A sense of purpose another. When you put them together in one human being, the world can be changed.”            John Brown

Tuesday, December 25, 1956 – Birmingham, Alabama: The explosion on Christmas night destroyed the small house, damaged the church next door and rattled windows a mile away. Ku Klux Klan members had placed 16 sticks of dynamite beneath the bedroom window of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church next door. Neighbors and police arrived to find Shuttlesworth, his wife and two children dazed and shocked but miraculously unharmed.

“Reverend, I know these people,” said one of the policemen, referring to the bombers, “These people are vicious. I didn’t think they would go this far. If I were you, I’d get out of town.” Shuttlesworth responded, “Go back and tell your Klan brothers that if the Lord saved me from this, I am here for the duration. The fight is just beginning.”

Freddie Lee Robinson was the first of nine children born to sharecroppers in 1922 in Mt. Meigs, Alabama. His father left home when he was an infant. Later when his mother married William Shuttlesworth, Fred took his stepfather’s last name. He studied for the ministry at Selma University and earned a B.S. in English from Alabama State University in 1951. He preached at a Baptist church in Selma before becoming pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in 1952.

Encouraged by the successful NAACP bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in December 1956, Shuttlesworth announced he would help lead a similar civil rights boycott in Birmingham. On Christmas Day, he announced to his congregation that they would ride at the front of the city buses the following day. His house on 29th Avenue North was bombed hours later.

After the bombing, key church leaders begged Shuttlesworth to cancel the planned bus ride. “We’re going to ride,” he told them, “Find a crack to hide in if you’re scared, but I’m going to walk downtown after church and get on a bus. Boys step back,” he shouted, “And men step forward.” The police arrested the preacher and 21 others during the protest.

Several months later, when Shuttlesworth arrived to enroll his children at the all-white John Philips High School, a group of angry white men smashed his car windows and beat him with brass knuckles and clubs. After crawling back to his car, Shuttlesworth drove himself to the hospital, where he was treated for cuts, bruises and kidney damage. That night from the pulpit, he told his congregation he forgave his attackers.

In 1957 when the state outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to continue the protests. Despite being arrested more than 30 times and suffering multiple beatings, Fred Shuttlesworth remained a leader in the non-violent campaign for racial equality.

On May 2, 1963, Shuttlesworth was one of those at the front of the school children marching in the streets of Birmingham when police used fire hoses and German Shepherds to disperse the crowd. More than 600 people spent the night in jail, and Shuttlesworth spent the night in the hospital after being knocked to the street from the blast of a fire hose. This event finally moved U.S. President John Kennedy and Congress to intervene.

On July 2, 1964, Fred Shuttlesworth was in the White House oval office when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which integrated public schools, outlawed employment discrimination and prohibited racial discrimination in public places.

Despite beatings, blasts from fire hoses, bombings and murder attempts, Fred Shuttlesworth refused to give up. He pastored the historic Bethel Baptist Church for almost 50 years before retiring from the pulpit in 2006. He continued to serve as a leader in the quest for racial equality and civil rights until his death at age 89.

In 2008, the Birmingham Airport Authority renamed the city’s airport the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport to honor the man Martin Luther King Jr. once called the Birmingham preacher, “The most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.”