Remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Reverend [Arthur] Price. It is an honor to stand with you today, and to join with so many distinguished leaders and pastors – from across this state and all around the country – whose lives have been touched, and enriched, by the extraordinary leader we’ve gathered to remember.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to join with each of you – and with so many members of the Shuttlesworth family – in paying tribute to a man who has meant so very much, not only to me and to my own family – but to our entire nation.
Although we have come together in a time of loss, it is clear that we are bound by more than sorrow. We are united by our shared admiration of Reverend Shuttlesworth, by our deep appreciation of his legacy, and – perhaps most importantly – by our collective responsibility to carry on his critical work, and to live up to the example of service that he left to us.
Reverend Shuttlesworth was not only a humble servant of the Lord; he was a leader of inspiring courage and rare compassion. He was both a warrior for justice and an advocate for peace; a trailblazer who never sought the spotlight – and never stopped reaching back to help those who struggled to follow in his steps. Without him there would be no me.
Throughout his life – as a minister of the faith, and a leader of the civil rights movement – he transcended labels like “pioneer” and “role model.” He became, as President Obama recently noted, nothing less than “a testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
Reverend Shuttlesworth showed us what it means to devote your life to a cause that is greater than yourself. And – along with Reverend King, Reverend Abernathy , Rev erend Lowery, and other distinguished Alabama preachers – he demonstrated the quiet power of selflessness; of kindness; and of sacrifice.
Reverend Shuttlesworth helped to lead the movement that remade our society. And more than half a century ago, he renewed the great, yet unfulfilled promise that first inspired America’s founding: that all its citizens are created equal. For so many decades, he called – and, at times, he pushed – our nation forward. From both the pulpit and the streets, with both his words and his deeds – he demanded and inspired the very best in our people.
Of course, it wasn’t easy – or without great risk. As an outspoken activist, as a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as one of the key organizers of the Freedom Rides – and the person who made the call to my predecessor Attorney General Kennedy when federal assistance was needed – and as the leader of “Project C” here in Birmingham, Reverend Shuttlesworth was often a prime target of hate – and even violence.
Over the years, he was spit on. He was savagely beaten. Not once, but on two separate occasions, he was bombed. And, more than 30 times, he was arrested. In 1963, a demonstration he led on this city’s streets resulted in his conviction – for parading without a permit. Reverend Shuttlesworth appealed – and took his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In its 1969 decision of Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham the Supreme Court reversed his conviction. And the Court determined that Reverend Shuttlesworth had been denied a parade permit – not to control traffic, as the state contended, but to censor ideas- powerful ideas rooted both in our Constitution and in our faith.
The Reverend’s ideas were based on principle, on righteousness, and on justice. And although they were, at times, dismissed and demeaned – they simply could not be denied nor defeated.
Despite every attempt to shut him up and hold him back, Reverend Shuttlesworth never stopped speaking out. And – with his head held high and his eyes toward the future – he never stopped moving forward.
In the face of great odds and adversity – including the despicable attack on this very church, that claimed four beautiful, innocent young lives – Reverend Shuttlesworth consistently responded, not with fear, resignation, or a desire for revenge – but with resolve, understanding, and even grace. Every setback – and every moment of sorrow and struggle – only strengthened his determination to achieve large-scale, long-overdue change.
In 1957, after he attempted to enroll his daughters at a recently integrated public school, Reverend Shuttlesworth was assaulted by an angry mob that set upon him with chains and baseball bats. But when he was taken to the hospital – beaten and bloodied – his doctors were astonished to find that not a single bone was broken. In fact, he didn’t even have a concussion.
At the time, he explained that, “The Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so He gave me a hard head.”
Not many years later – and not far from this church, in a jail where Reverend Shuttlesworth also spent a great deal of time – a similarly hard-headed Dr. King wrote one of the most famous letters in American history. Dr. King’s words became a clarion call to action; an admonishment of those of good faith who fall silent in times of moral crisis; and, in their most basic form, a straightforward account of the convictions that drove so many – including Fred Shuttlesworth, who is mentioned in the letter by name – to risk their lives in the fight for equality.
Today, the famous words that Dr. King penned from his Birmingham jail cell still remind us that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” They also demand that we act – just as Reverend Shuttlesworth did throughout his life – to defend the rights entitled to all Americans; and to stand up, speak out, and take on anyone who would unfairly attempt to deny or abridge these rights.
Were he here today, I know that Reverend Shuttlesworth would seize this opportunity to point out that – for all the progress that we’ve seen as a nation, and all the achievements that he, personally, helped to bring about – much more remains to be done. Despite the facts that an African American sits in the White House and that another addresses you tonight as Attorney General of the United States, work remains to be done. In far too many places, discrimination persists as a real and active threat. And basic rights, including those as fundamental as the right to vote, have once again come under attack.
So, although we can be justifiably proud of the steps this country has taken over the years to expand the promise of justice and equality for all Americans, none of us can afford to become complacent. And this evening – here, in the city where, half a century ago, Reverend Shuttlesworth ignited what he called “a fire you can’t put out” – it is time to recommit ourselves to the struggle that defined his life. And it is time to renew our pledge to keep that fire burning brightly in the work that is now ours to carry forward.
This is not only our responsibility as friends and admirers of the remarkable leader we mourn today. It is our calling as Americans. And, in ways both large and small, I firmly believe that each of us can – and, indeed, must – take up the cause that Reverend Shuttlesworth championed for so many years. Not only do we have decades of progress to protect, and a past to honor. We have a future – and a more perfect union – to build.
Let this work be our common cause – as well as Reverend Shuttlesworth’s lasting legacy. Let our efforts be his living monument. And let his unwavering faith – in our nation and in our fellow citizens – continue to guide our steps forward.
Once again, thank you for the chance to share in this evening, and for the opportunity to bid farewell to an extraordinary teacher – and a true national treasure.