A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth

A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth


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When Fred Shuttlesworth suffered only a bump on the head in the 1956 bombing of his home, members of his church called it a miracle. Shuttlesworth took it as a sign that God would protect him on the mission that had made him a target that night. Standing in front of his demolished home, Shuttlesworth vigorously renewed his commitment to integrate Birmingham's buses, lunch counters, police force, and parks. The incident transformed him, in the eyes of Birmingham's blacks, from an up-and-coming young minister to a virtual folk hero and, in the view of white Birmingham, from obscurity to rabble-rouser extraordinaire.

From his 1956 founding of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights through the historic demonstrations of 1963, driven by a sense of divine mission, Shuttlesworth pressured Jim Crow restrictions in Birmingham with radically confrontational acts of courage. His intensive campaign pitted him against the staunchly segregationist police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor and ultimately brought him to the side of Martin Luther King Jr. and to the inner chambers of the Kennedy White House.

First published in 1999, Andrew Manis's award-winning biography of "one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters" demonstrates compellingly that Shuttleworth's brand of fiery, outspoken confrontation derived from his prophetic understanding of the pastoral role. Civil rights activism was tantamount to salvation in his understanding of the role of Christian minister.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817311568
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Series: Religion & American Culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Andrew M. Manis is an associate professor of history at Middle Georgia State College in Macon, Georgia. He is also the author of Southern Civil Religions in Conflict: Civil Rights and the Culture Wars.

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A Fire You Can't Put Out

The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttles Worth
By Andrew M. Manis

University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2002 Andrew M. Manis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0817311564

Chapter One


There have been many times I wanted to try Mama, but one thing I know, Alberta didn't play.
-- Fred L. Shuttlesworth

According to an old southern story, a young boy once asked, "Daddy, what makes a lightning bug light?" Hoping not to appear stumped and thus preserve the mystique of parental omniscience, the father offered a long and purposely bewildering explanation. After several moments, the bemused lad cut through the verbiage, insisting, "C'mon, Daddy, for real. How come the lightning bug lights?" "Well, Son," the father sheepishly replied, "the stuff is just in him!" So one might say about Fred Shuttlesworth's spirited, confrontational personality. His character was a natural outgrowth of the situations and personalities around him. More than anyone else, however, his mother, Alberta Robinson Shuttlesworth, shaped Fred's resolute disposition. To recognize his mother's hard-bitten ways and the extent to which Fred adopted them is to understand how the "stuff" of his character got in him. This chapter covers Shuttlesworth's family background and early life up through his graduation from high school. It highlights how his upbringing in the shadow of the volatile and often violent relationship between his mother and stepfather shaped a combative personality that eventually expressed itself in all of Shuttlesworth's relationships. In particular, this part of the story details the ways the personality of his mother influenced that of her eldest child, preparing him in part for his later role as a hard-nosed minister and civil rights agitator.

Fred's determination and combativeness came naturally. Family and friends remembered Alberta's earthy piety and fabled strength of character. Eventually enfeebled, blind, and bedridden, she displayed an indomitable constitution by living to age ninety-four on the same hill where her nine children grew up. The civil rights preacher later called "a hard man for a hard town" shared this feistiness. Reminiscing about her father and grandmother, Patricia Shuttlesworth Massengill described an image that epitomized their spirited nature--Saturday night visits when both generations sat bobbing on a sofa, jabbing the air as they watched boxing matches on television. As Shuttlesworth's son, Fred Jr. further testified, "My old man don't kick butts no better than she do.... He looks like her; he talks like her. He has all of her mannerisms." Fred Sr.'s younger brother Clifton went one generation better by pointing to Alberta's father, March Robinson, as the source of this trait: "Fred ... just won't let nothin' stop him until he accomplishes what he started, and that's the way it was with my mother, and that's the way it was with my grandfather." The combative and at times earthy spirituality that marked the life of Fred Shuttlesworth thus persisted through generations on his mother's side of the family.

Born in the mid-1870s in Montgomery County, Alabama, March Robinson married Martha Carpenter just before the turn of the century in a small rural community known as McGhee Switch near the small town of Mt. Meigs. A devout Methodist, March became a steward and a trustee in the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church after moving to the community near Birmingham known as Oxmoor. Both before and after his family's move, he earned a modest living as a tenant farmer, primarily raising corn and cotton. When fatigued from working the fields, he often asked his wife to sing "Amazing Grace" to him. He ordinarily owned livestock, especially chickens, a cow, and a very recalcitrant mule, which he sometimes beat with a chain. Although he had lost an eye in an accident, he was renowned as a sharpshooter with his twenty-two caliber rifle. He had very little formal schooling, although he had learned enough to read newspapers. He also prized education, and he insisted that his daughter get as much education as possible. One colorful family tale has him announcing his intention to avoid catching the measles, which had laid low most of the children. Declaring, "No, I'm not gon' catch those devilish things," he took up his blanket and slept in the barn. March and Martha, however, seldom used these sleeping arrangements, for they became the parents of eight children.

The first arrival, born August 25, 1900, was a daughter named Alberta, who became the apple of her father's protective eye. Later, the family remembered the affectionate and exaggerated manner by which March pronounced his daughter's name: "A-l-l-l-l-l-berta," with six syllables instead of three. Father and daughter were very close emotionally and lived near each other until March's death in 1945. As the first born, Alberta kept house for her parents while they worked the fields together, and as siblings arrived she participated in their rearing. She finished elementary school and took some courses at Alabama State Normal School (later called Alabama State College and still later Alabama State University), but never graduated. For a while she worked as a teacher's aide in the public schools, but by age twenty-one, circumstances ended her formal education and her opportunities for a teaching career.

She became involved with a young man named Vetter Greene, who had grown up in the area and developed a reputation for his easygoing manner. Greene lived in a dilapidated shack in an alley in Montgomery, making his meager living keeping dogs and repairing watches and guns. Although expert at his craft, he had neither much education nor any perceptible ambition to advance to any higher station in life. To March Robinson these traits marked him as less than suitable as a prospective son-in-law. Exhibiting a trait his daughter and grandson eventually shared, March aspired to a higher state for his children and took a dislike to young Greene. Although the couple was very much in love, March refused them permission to marry. Showing her own independence of mind, however, Alberta defied her father's wishes and continued the relationship. She became pregnant by Greene, and on March 18, 1922, gave birth to a son, whom she named Fred after a brother who had died some years earlier. Even after the arrival of an illegitimate son, and against her father's wishes, Alberta continued her relationship with Vetter Greene, becoming pregnant again in 1923. By this time, March Robinson had decided to move his large family, including the pregnant Alberta and her infant son, to the rapidly growing industrial county of Jefferson, ending Alberta's relationship with Vetter Greene.

Like thousands of other migrants settling in Jefferson County, March Robinson made the move for economic reasons. The city of Birmingham, founded in 1871 by railroad developers and land speculators of the Elyton Land Company and blessed with large deposits of coal, limestone, and iron ore, grew quickly into a New South industrial center. Through annexation in 1910, Birmingham grew into the third largest city in the former Confederacy. With a population of 132,685, it earned the nicknames the "Magic City" for its rapid growth and the "Pittsburgh of the South" for its importance as a steel producer. Combining the worst elements and excesses of both the Old South and the new, industry gradually created an atmosphere of exploitation in the city, especially for African Americans. In the 1920s, most new residents overlooked these matters, however, contenting themselves with the area's economic opportunities. Nonetheless, as the industry developed, exploitation of workers and poor working conditions in the mines kept pace with Birmingham's industrial reputation. The incomes of coal miners remained uncertain while their typical workdays lasted twelve to fourteen hours without overtime pay.

Even before Emancipation, the area, cursed with poor soil, had not been conducive to large plantations. Birmingham's community of freed slaves in the post-Emancipation era thus numbered only about twenty-five hundred. The developing industry of Jefferson County, however, attracted thousands of blacks from cotton farms downstate, most of whom were sharecroppers or tenant farmers like March Robinson. By 1880 the black population had doubled, and it increased by six times in the next decade. When the Robinsons arrived, they joined a black community of more than 130,000, which was 39 percent of the city's total population. This percentage of black residency marked the highest of any American city with more than one hundred thousand in population. As the number of African Americans grew between 1900 and 1920, whites pressed for the passage of legislation to control blacks' availability as cheap sources of labor. Most blacks became coal miners or steelworkers, relegated to menial and unskilled jobs. Other positions were deemed "white folks's jobs." Coal mines, requiring a great deal of heavy lifting and moving, employed blacks as virtual "beasts of burden." As in March Robinson's case, blacks were also hired to tend the animals that pulled the carts. In addition to working occasionally for the mines, Robinson rented a parcel of land in the former coal-mining community called Oxmoor, ten miles south of Birmingham proper, near the Wenonah and Ishkooda Mines.

After the mines were depleted, the companies dismantled their smelting plants. By the 1930s, Birmingham industrialists had been hit hard by the depression and were remembering a saying from the city's earliest days: "Hard times come here first and stay longest." The dire situation portended even worse results for the city's black workers, who by this time comprised half the coal miners and 65 percent of the steelworkers in the state. Tighter competition resulted in a declining number of jobs for blacks as white workers and managers often colluded to wrest their positions from them. The mines' departure gradually ended the townlike amenities, reducing Oxmoor to two segregated communities four miles apart. While some blacks supported themselves by farming and by working in what remained of mining operations, others in Birmingham served as domestics, yardmen, and chauffeurs. According to historian Robert J. Norrell, patterns of industrial race relations in Birmingham matched those in South Africa, where job competition became a powerful incentive for maintaining segregation. This situation suggests one reason why by the 1960s the city had earned the name the "Johannesburg of the South." Prejudice and economic necessity thus forced blacks to accept lower-paying jobs outside heavy industry or to move to the North.

Blacks generally settled in the less attractive land left vacant by industry and by white residential areas, usually along creek beds or railroad lines. "Negro" sections such as Smithfield, Collegeville, and "Tuxedo Junction" remained unlighted, unpaved, and untouched by city services. The housing of most blacks barely improved on the ramshackle sharecropper cabins these migrants had left behind in their former rural districts. Many lived in rows of "company houses," three- to four-room rental dwellings owned by the coal and steel companies. Alberta lived with her family in such an arrangement in Oxrnoor until she entered into a short-lived marriage to a man named Satterfield. The surroundings were less than commodious, and in later years her children often heard her remark about the old days on "Rat Row."

By the time her son turned five, Alberta had divorced Satterfield and had met William Nathan Shuttlesworth, reputed to be among the community's most eligible men. Born in Tuscaloosa County in 1877, Will Shuttlesworth was abandoned by his mother and reared by an aunt. Not much younger than March Robinson, he learned to read but acquired little education beyond the third grade. Sometime early in the century, Shuttlesworth migrated to Detroit to work in the automobile industry. He married a woman named Mayberry and raised two sons, Preston and Lawrence. After the marriage soured and the couple divorced, Will moved back to Alabama, settling in Oxrnoor. He worked in the mines until silicosis, a disease of the lungs resulting from breathing ore dust, cost him his job. After retiring from the mines, Will supported himself by farming the three acres he had been able to buy with money he had earned in Detroit. Later, he also rented fifteen acres of land from another farmer near Edgewood Lake. On these parcels of land, Shuttlesworth primarily raised corn, which he used to feed his livestock and to distill liquor. His small-time bootlegging operation continued until his death in 1940, but it never produced more than a weekly five-gallon barrel of liquor. He primarily served the miners who found their way to his operation after drawing their paychecks on weekends. This activity, coupled with his almost "religious" avoidance of churchgoing, made him as unlikely to win pious March Robinson's approval as Alberta's earlier suitors. Alberta asserted her will again, however, marrying Will Shuttlesworth on January 22, 1927. By this time, she had given birth to her second child by Vetter Greene, a girl named Cleola. Soon after the wedding Alberta changed the names of her children to Shuttlesworth. She later taught her children by Greene that "the man who takes care of you and brings you up is your father." Such a flexible view of paternity, in both the mother and her children, reflects an attitude typical among rural African Americans, who, in sociologist Lewis W. Jones's words, "accept the fact of having been born with a simplicity that more sophisticated people find difficult to appreciate." In this and other ways, Freddie Lee Shuttlesworth would grow up identifying with the common folk.

Alberta, Fred, and Cleo moved into the house that Will Shuttlesworth built with help from his friend, Morris Haygood. Eventually, the large house would be filled with seven other children from the union of Alberta and Will--Eugene, Eula Mae, Ernestine, Awilda, Clifton, Truzella, and Betty. In addition, the household often included the sons of Will's previous marriage, who came for extended visits. Photographs of Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus decorated the living room. These figures rarely became the objects of teaching sessions, although the parents as well as the children looked up to them as important parts of the black heritage. The Shuttlesworth home did not have running water or electric power; candles and kerosene lamps provided the illumination. The boys hauled water--drinking water from the well at the nearby schoolyard and wash water from a favorite spring--in two fifty-five gallon drums. This house, along with the red house where his grandmother Martha Robinson died, became the significant settings for Fred's first childhood memories.

Like most of the families in the community, the Shuttlesworths were poor. Fred was eleven or twelve before he acquired a pair of long pants. Wearing them proudly, Fred walked to school the next morning concerned that his creases not wrinkle. (This was apparently the beginning of his attention to his dapper appearance--later during his civil rights career, a relatively hostile Birmingham police officer would concede that "Shuttlesworth always looked good in his clothes.") Their poverty notwithstanding, the family managed by ingenuity and teamwork to avoid the most extreme forms of deprivation. Both parents, but especially Alberta, enforced their expectations that each of the children, as they grew old enough, would contribute to the family's well-being. Like many of their neighbors, the family benefited from the New Deal welfare programs and often expressed the popular slogan, "Let Roosevelt feed you and the good Lord lead you." At twelve Fred often rode his bicycle to the food distribution office on Second Avenue South and Twenty-fourth Street. His stepfather drove his Model-T Ford into Birmingham to buy day-old bread from a bakery. In addition, their diet consisted of beans, peas, greens of various sorts, welfare flour, wheat, and lard, with occasional opportunities for meat.

Life in the Shuttlesworth home, however, periodically deteriorated to a less than harmonious state. With strong personalities and hot tempers, the parents frequently engaged in spirited arguments, sometimes in vitriolic language. Twenty-three years older than his wife, Will was jealous of her attractiveness to younger men. Similarly concerned about her husband's wandering eye, Alberta had good reason to worry. Will had been known in Oxmoor as "one of the catches of the area." Eugene Shuttlesworth, the first of Alberta's children by Will, speculated that his father had likely "stepped out on" Alberta. For his part, Fred remembered that his stepfather had had a liaison with a woman in the community named Louise, a sister of one of Will's friends. Will's extramarital affairs were no secret to Alberta. As a black woman with several children, Alberta knew her precarious financial situation precluded any serious consideration of divorce. Moreover, she did not wish to be rid of Will. If the couple ever spoke of divorce, they never did so within earshot of their children. Nevertheless, Alberta's anger at her husband's sexual indiscretions at times bubbled vigorously to the surface in forceful complaints, and, as their conflicts escalated, so did the violence of their conflicts. The frequency and intensity of physical confrontations between their parents convinced daughters Cleo and Eula that serious harm might come to Alberta. This led Cleo to suggest that they intervene in one of their parents' fights, saying to Eula, "They fightin'. Let's get him. Here, you take this," as she handed her a large rock.

During another fight, Will slapped Alberta across the face as they tangled on the front porch. Infuriated, Alberta chased him down the stairs and into the yard. As he tried to distance himself from her, Alberta clawed his face, and both loudly cursed at one another. Will noticed neighbor Maggie Tolbert watching the proceedings from across the road. Trying to shame his wife into retreat, he cried out, "Look at Maggie!! She's watching you." Alberta shot back, "Damn Maggie! You slapped me, you son of a bitch!!" In their home the instance of domestic violence with the most severe and irreparable consequences occurred one day when an angry Alberta attacked her husband with a broom handle. Attempting to defend himself, he raised a chair to block her blows. As she swung at him she hit the chair, however, and her broomstick splintered. One of the shards struck her in the face and gouged her eye. Fred blamed his stepfather for Alberta's permanent injury and convinced his siblings of Will's responsibility. Over the next few years, Fred periodically mumbled accusations under his breath and nurtured the determination to avenge his mother. When he was fifteen, he hatched a plot with Eugene and Cleo to beat up his stepfather. On the predetermined day, as Fred served on kitchen duty, he deliberately picked a fight with Will, accusing him of hurting his mother. "You knocked Mama's eye out," he said defiantly, "and you ain't gon' get away with it." Meanwhile, a broom-wielding Cleo and the heavy-set Gene were ready to enter the kitchen on cue from opposite doors. Fred and Gene would hold him while Cleo administered his punishment. Somehow alert to the developing plot, Will waited until the trio converged. When Fred's accomplices entered the room, he stamped his foot, shouting loudly at Cleo, "What the hell you gon' do with that broomfl?!!" The wide-eyed brother and sister straightaway bolted, leaving Fred staring his would-be victim square in the face. Defeated and silent, Fred sullenly left the room, ending the failed attempt to avenge his mother's injury. Cleo later admitted, "I don't guess we even had the nerve to do it."

Thinking back on their home, the children of this marriage generally did not view the violence they witnessed as unusual. Fred Shuttlesworth grew up in an era and culture much less sensitive to family violence than contemporary times. Will and Alberta Shuttlesworth's relationship was at best stormy. Yet the children observed times of tenderness between them. Despite his parents'intermittent battles, Fred became convinced that "that old man really loved Mama." His brother Eugene saw evidence of this affection in their having seven children together in fifteen years of marriage. He further thought that although Alberta and Will had an abusive relationship, the abuse went in both directions. In their confrontations, Alberta clearly delivered almost as much as she received, and now and then she, in Eugene's words, "might have gloated because she had gotten the best of him." Unquestionably, however, these hard-edged situations built into Fred Shuttlesworth an essential toughness that would later manifest itself in overt ways.

The Shuttlesworths' lack of concern with family violence was attributable to several factors. This concern is of relatively recent provenance, arising in American society only in the late 1960s or 1970s. Discussions of corporal punishment of children or domestic violence played little part in American life in the early twentieth century. In addition, the South has had a reputation for violence, typically expressed in greater support for the military, corporal punishment of children, gun ownership, and recreational fighting. Although these tendencies have been most pronounced in white southerners, blacks have shared their region's comparatively violent ethos. This larger culture influenced the Shuttlesworth family and lent to their home life a hard-nosed character. Furthermore, as members of the agricultural working class, Will and Alberta Shuttlesworth were unlikely to conform to what E. Franklin Frazier called "bourgeois ideals and standards of behavior." They lacked the smooth, educated savoir faire of the black middle class, which generally sought to avoid the traditional folk culture of "common" blacks. Beyond this aspect, regardless of race, families of lower economic status experience more frustrations and have fewer resources for coping with them. As a result, such families resort to violence more often than those in higher status groups. Although the Shuttlesworths did exhibit the piety, thrift, respectability, and other traits Frazier associated with the "black bourgeoisie," they lacked the social heritage, formal education, and professional status of the upper or middle classes. They showed middle-class traits not because they enjoyed middle-class status but because they aspired to it. Such aspirations typified what sociologist Charles Johnson called the "upper lower" or, preferably, the agricultural working class. In the 1930s this orientation characterized most rural blacks in Alabama and expressed itself in certain distinguishing marks: the renting of land, less-than-comfortable income level, little education coupled with high ambitions for children, church membership as an indication of respectability, concern for "staying out of trouble," and both emulating and ridiculing the pretenses of the upper classes. Fred shuttlesworth was the product of a family that bore most of these marks, which in large measure illuminate his developing character.

The same tough family setting that created a penchant for family violence also made for an unsentimental home life. Although Fred and the other children never felt unloved, their parents rarely demonstrated their affection for them. Fred in particular sometimes received harsh treatment from his stepfather in their somewhat tense relationship. The children's difficulties did not result from Will's disciplinary measures; Alberta filled that role. As Fred's sister Eula recalled, her father seldom participated in disciplining the children, although he once gave her a switching for directly disobeying him. In other situations, however, Fred saw his stepfather as cruel and abusive, especially toward him and Cleo, the stepchildren: "When I was young I thought he was a cruel man, much more cruel than he should have been. He didn't have any reason to be mean to us but he was. I and my older sister were his stepchildren. He was really strict and hard on us."

Fred's desires to retaliate against his stepfather are understandable in light of an emotionally debilitating ritual to which William Shuttlesworth subjected his children. He often used profane but, to Will's mind, playful name-calling with the children as he "helped the plates." He characteristically distributed to Cleo the wing of the chicken because, as he would say, "that little heifer likes to fly" from her parents. He often poked fun at Gene as a "big-headed hound." At Fred he often pointed a crooked finger, adding a threatening tone to his verbal abuse: "You white-eyed hound, I'm going to beat hell out of you" or "I got hell up my sleeve for you." Good-natured though such actions and words may have been to Will, they were not interpreted in that way by Fred. To him they seemed serious and left him with little recourse but silent acquiescence. The stepson admitted, however, "I wish I could have grabbed him," and he wondered how they as children managed to avoid digestive problems (not to mention problems of self-image) from such hurtful incidents at the table.

In characteristic fashion, Gene Shuttlesworth remembered his father more charitably than Fred. The younger brother disagreed about Will's cruelty, seeing him as a caring father, at least insofar as he provided for the family and insisted that his children receive the education he never attained. He insisted on their "getting their lessons," expressing pride in their accomplishments. Nonetheless, Fred saw "Papa" as far from a positive example for him, later lamenting that he had to look elsewhere for more positive role models.

Will's mistreatment of his stepchildren caused almost as many problems as his infidelities. For example, after Will's death Alberta refused to marry again until all of her children had left home, not wishing, she later told her son Clifton, to "put any man over" her children. Although she eventually did remarry after her children were grown, her reticence partly reflected an effort to avoid making the same mistake twice--subjecting her remaining children to a stepfather's potential abuse. The conflict Fred observed between his parents, however, loomed even larger. He occasionally heard his mother blame Will for the loss of her eye. Fred of course shared his mother's view and took his mother's part when he perceived her as suffering unjustly by her husband's hand. These experiences may have exacerbated a kind of oedipal struggle between Fred and his stepfather, for male children in violent marriages often become allied with their mothers as protectors against their fathers.

Fred and the other children had a more positive male role model in their grandfather, who continued to live nearby in Oxmoor. March Robinson disapproved of Will Shuttlesworth's amoral lifestyle. He objected to his son-in-law's profane temperament and his lack of church attendance. He particularly disliked Will's bootlegging operation and womanizing. Given his history of rejecting his daughter's suitors, March probably had impossibly high standards, and no one Alberta chose would have passed muster. His moralistic and devout demeanor, however, suggested a particular coolness toward William Shuttlesworth. Until his death in 1945, March lived near his daughter's family, first with his wife, Martha, and later with occasional visits from his mother, Sarah Robinson. "Grandma Sarah" had the same feistiness as March and Alberta, insisting that her great-grandchildren earn their keep by sweeping the yard. Both Sarah and her son earned reverential respect from all the Shuttlesworth children. A tall, imposing man weighing almost three hundred pounds, March Robinson demanded obedience from his grandchildren without having to say things twice.

By age fourteen, however, Fred's developing spirit of independence overcame his awe of his grandfather--at least once. As March ambled through a nearby cotton field with his grandsons, he issued an order that won an impudent reply from Fred. March took up a cotton stalk to administer corporal discipline. Fred scampered away, but was surprised when his grandfather gave chase until the youthful fugitive caught his shirt trying escape through a barbedwire fence. Reaching through the fence, March effectively applied his punishment, and Fred never challenged him again. Beyond his intimidating size and strict bearing, March Robinson provided Fred and the others a kindly and pious example. His punctilious attendance and respected involvement in the St. Matthew AME Church impressed them. His warmheartedness attracted them when they visited him after church each Sunday. He often told them ghost stories and parched peanuts for them, and he regularly brought oranges to Eula, who was often ill and confined to the house. March Robinson thus largely countered the example of Fred Shuttlesworth's stepfather and provided Fred a proud role model. The elder Robinson's greatest legacy, however, lay in the traits of character he and Alberta helped shape in his grandson.

Like many sons, Fred Shuttlesworth views his mother rather uncritically and hails her as the dominant influence in his life. "I have nothing but praise for Mama," he has said, "except for [her] using vile and intemperate language," which fairly often bubbled up in her battles with her husband. The family marveled at her strength of character and her integrity. Fred recalled her always working assiduously to add to the family's coffers, yet never owning more than two dresses. She adjusted to her meager possessions with a spartan demeanor. Once when she lost a twenty dollar bill, Fred, expecting his mother to be upset by what he viewed as a major financial setback, asked her, "Don't you feel like crying?" "Son," she explained, "you can't miss what you never had. But you can be yourself with or without it. This doesn't stop me from being what I am. It's better to have a little with principle than to have much with no principle." In similar fashion, as he grew older, Clifton Shuttlesworth discovered that the entire community respected her integrity, knowing that she could be trusted to pay her debts.

Alberta was a no-nonsense mother who worked hard and demanded that her children do the same, as was commonly the case in poor rural families in which both parents contributed to the family income. She did occasional day labor as a domestic or worked with her children for fifty cents a day in a neighbor's field. Later, Alberta had a long-term job as a housekeeper for the family of R. B. Kent, a well-to-do dairyman in the Oak Grove section of Jefferson County. The Kents treated her kindly, never displaying any extreme racist attitudes. Alberta ordinarily returned home by four o'clock in the afternoon, and then she would prepare the evening meal.

Alberta made her most vivid impressions on her brood with her hard-nosed discipline. Fred often confessed to toeing the line dutifully at his imperious mother's commands. He declared, "There have been many times I wanted to try Mama, but one thing I know, Alberta didn't play. And I didn't play with her." Indeed, all of her children knew not to play with Alberta. Just before their mother returned from work, they all scurried around the house, frantically making sure their responsibilities had been met by the time she arrived and called them into account. Speaking to a college audience later, Fred told of her proficiency at not sparing the rod: "She was an expert in applying either the switch or the 'board of education' to the 'seat of knowledge,' which caused a burning without and some sensations within." She often whipped the children in a row, from the oldest to the youngest, when generally displeased with the level of discipline around the house. Her whippings were frequent and severe. One of Alberta's switchings left a permanent scar on Fred's hip. On another occasion, she slapped him near his eyes, causing him literally to see stars. She had little time or inclination to discuss matters of disagreement with her children, often using corporal discipline as a first resort. At times the children were bothered by this stern approach. Her fourth child, Eula, once told her, "Mama, I think you whup me just 'cause you can." Apparently conscience stricken, Alberta caught herself and laid down the strap. Observing the felicitous results of Eula's words, young brother Clifton filed them away, later using them himself while suffering the wrath of Alberta--this time, however, to no avail. The line worked only once.


Excerpted from A Fire You Can't Put Out by Andrew M. Manis Copyright © 2002 by Andrew M. Manis.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 Alberta10
2 Ready35
3 Bethel68
4 Agitation113
5 "Bull" fighting162
6 Stalemate213
7 Jailbirds253
8 Confrontations300
9 Cataclysm343
10 "Actionist"391

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