Black Baptist Women and the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1963: Historians and Journalists during and Immediately after the Civil Rights Movement Emphasized the Role of Religion in the Movement. They Showed How the Black Church and Its Leaders Provided the Charisma, Finance, Inspiration, Spiritual Nurture, and the Foot Soldiers That Made the Movement Successful
Fallin, Wilson, Jr., Baptist History and Heritage
Most of the attention was lavished on ordained clergy and prominent male leadership figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt T. Walker, James Farmer, and Fred Shuttlesworth. In recent years, more attention has been given to the work of religious women, especially those of grassroots importance in the various civil rights campaigns. Scholars, many of them females, have sought to show how the history of the black women's religious experience informed their sense of social responsibility and activism. One of the most important civil rights campaigns occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, between 1956 and 1963, and a study of this campaign demonstrates the importance of women at all levels.
Before looking at the role of women, especially Baptist women involved in the Birmingham movement, an examination of the movement's origin and major features is necessary. In 1956, many persons considered Birmingham, which was often referred to as the Johannesburg of the South, to be the most segregated city in the United States. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became the most active group in protesting discrimination in Birmingham and throughout Alabama. The outlawing of the NAACP by the state of Alabama was the spark that set off a mass-based Civil Rights Movement. Led by Attorney General John Patterson, the state of Alabama successfully won an injunction against the NAACP, preventing the association from operating in the state until it complied with Alabama's new registration requirements for organizations headquartered outside the state. One requirement was that an organization must present its membership rolls to the state, but the Alabama NAACP officials were convinced that adhering to this requirement would bring all kinds of reprisals against its members.
The Importance of Fred Shuttlesworth
One person perturbed by the ban of the NAACP was Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church. Shortly after the ban, Shuttlesworth proposed the holding of a mass meeting to see if blacks in Birmingham wanted to organize to fight for their rights. He convinced four pastors, N. H. Smith, Jr., G. E. Pruitt, T. L. Lane, and R. L. Alford, to join him in the call. On June 5, 1956, at the Sardis Baptist Church, these pastors led in the formation of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).
The strategy of the ACMHR combined direct action and legal redress. Members of the group would break segregation laws, and then they would challenge those laws in the courts. This approach represented a radical departure from prior civil rights activity in Birmingham. Before the implementation of this new strategy, groups would petition the city, or they would challenge segregation laws in the courts. Now black Alabamans were actually breaking the laws.
The ACMHR met every Monday night. Members adopted the slogan, "The Movement is Moving." A mass-based religiously orientated Civil Rights Movement had started in Birmingham, and this movement, more militant than the NAACP, was made up of pastors and church people who were convinced that God would give them the victory over the forces of segregation in the city.
The importance of Shuttlesworth for the Birmingham movement cannot be overstated. In 1953, Shuttlesworth had moved to Birmingham to pastor the Bethel Baptist Church. He immediately joined the NAACP and became its membership secretary. The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools inspired Shuttlesworth to believe that African American freedom was possible and propelled him into increased involvement in civil rights. He attended meetings of the Montgomery bus boycott and communicated with its leadership. When the NAACP was outlawed in Alabama, Shuttlesworth sprang into action and formed the ACMHR.
Shuttlesworth possessed a stubborn will, indomitable faith, and a sense of divine compulsion and destiny. …