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Fred Shuttlesworth

Photo from www.fredshuttlesworthfoundation.org

There was an emotional reunion and farewell on Monday, October 24 at the funeral of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. He died of natural causes at 89.

I was honored to be there with so many people from the civil rights movement, who rightly acclaimed Shuttlesworth as its boldest and most fearless nonviolent leader in the face of segregationist repression.

Many preachers in the pulpit far exceeded the prescribed time limit for remarks, of course, but most of them were worth it. Rev. Joseph Lowery, who delivered the signal prayer at President Obama’s inauguration, had everybody helpless with laughter and then tears at 90. The ailing C.T. Vivian appeared by video from his home in Atlanta. Andy Young responded gracefully to gentle humor about being too nice and bourgeois for the tastes of a firebrand like Shuttlesworth.

I sat next to Martin Luther King, III. Just in front of us, Rep. John Lewis stayed for the entire 6-hour service and never seemed restless. Old friends greeted each other and stopped by to chat softly during breaks. Among many others were Rose Sanders of Selma, Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul & Mary, Bernard Lafayette of SNCC, historian Diane McWhorter, Dick Gregory the crusader comedian, and the former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who at last won convictions in the Birmingham church bombing case from 1963.

There was also wonderful music. For me, the most moving moment occurred when Shuttlesworth’s four children summoned about twenty of his descendants to the rostrum and sang a spontanous spiritual that started ragged but gathered precision and close harmony in many parts. They inspired tears in the congregation and stepped down with modest dignity, saying “grandaddy” has always wanted them to sing when they gathered.

All of us did our best to find a fresh angle of tribute when our turn came to stand in the pulpit over the coffin. Xernona Clayton, who worked for Dr. King at SCLC, preceded me with one of the stories from my prepared remarks, but that was fine with me. There was a clock running to reduce longwindedness, and I wanted to shorten my tribue anyway.

The service was filmed for podcast. If you’re interested, I’m sure the voluminous eulogy tributes will be available soon via Google. Here is mine in advance.

Tribute Remarks by Taylor Branch

Funeral of Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth

Faith Chapel
Birmingham, Alabama

October 24, 2011

To the Shuttlesworth family, all the church families gathered here, to former members of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and to every friend of freedom through nonviolent bravery and sacrifice, let me say what a bittersweet honor it is to help bid farewell to the earthly form of the movement’s unsurpassed champion, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

I knew him best through many years of scholarship. Our personal contacts were limited, although I’ll never forget marching right beside him through Memphis on the 30th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, with Rev. Shuttlesworth ever the intrepid leader, telling stories while he said boldly “Follow me,” and “Everybody get out of the way.”

On visits to Selma and other places, we reminisced about the history that he had made and I had studied. Once long ago at a small church in Baltimore, Rev. Shuttlesworth was acknowledged but declined to speak, saying he was too tired, but the next thing we knew he was revved up to full throttle with his arms outstretched wide like this, banking and twisting as his words flew with the spirit. My wife Christy was astonished by the spell of his sermon. Rev. Shuttlesworth was a bantam in size, but she said his hands were huge and expressive. He was rough-cut as a boy. He once told me he may even have had a whiskey still way back in the woods, but the Lord’s call to the ministry gave him new grace, and in the pulpit his sermons soared on the full wingspan of a 747.

More than fifty years ago, early in his fight against segregation’s citadel here in Birmingham, a frightened minister announced that God had appeared to him in a vision with instructions to call off Shuttlesworth’s protest. Rev. Shuttlesworth answered with a fiery eye, crying out, “Since when did the Lord send my messages through you? The Lord told me to call it on!”

Still, we should remember that not even he could win freedom by himself. The dam of change broke from Birmingham across the United States, and indeed across the world, only when almost two thousand children went to jail here in 1963, some as young as six years old. In the annals of history, I know of no comparable impact from the witness of youth except perhaps the Passover sacrifice of firstborn sons in Egypt. Birmingham’s children actively marched through police dogs and fire hoses so fierce that a stream of water cracked several of Rev. Shuttlesworth’s ribs on May 7.

He exhorted the mass meeting to continue the marches, telling once of an old country farmer whose daughter kept asking him, “Daddy, what makes the lightning bugs light up?” And the farmer mumbled and scratched his head, because he didn’t want to admit that he didn’t know. She pressed him, and finally the old farmer replied, “Well, baby, I’ll tell you about the lightning bugs. The stuff is just in ‘em, that’s all!” Rev. Shuttlesworth drove home his point with a twinkle. “And it’s the same with the spirit that these black folks be free,” he declared from the pulpit. “The stuff is just in ‘em!”

Years later in Baltimore, he approached the end of his spontaneous sermon. “I’m looking for a place to land!” he called out, arms stretched wide, but again and again he soared off on new wings of inspiration. Now at last he has landed with the angels of justice, the angels of democracy, the angels of love and salvation. May he abide with them as we tend the spirit of Fred Shuttlesworth. It can light up the world. The stuff was just in him. Let us keep it bright.

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On May 4, 2010, news broke that Oprah Winfrey’s company is producing for HBO a 7-hour dramatic miniseries about the civil rights era based on my trilogy.  The stories announced that HBO recently brought prize-winning screenwriter Robert Schenkkan onto the project. I am very relieved that news of this miniseries is now public, even though I can’t say much about it.

Under HBO executive Kary Antholis, we have been developing outlines and script drafts for several years since my first meeting with HBO President Richard Plepler in 2006.  Our model is the 2008 miniseries on John and Abigail Adams, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.  Read full announcement >

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On September 28, the American Constitution Society in Washington presented a dialogue about voting rights between me and my old hometown friend, Rep. John Lewis (D. Ga.).  We reminisced about private moments from his famous march across Selma’s Pettus Bridge and its historic consequences in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Lawyers from the audience asked sharp questions about present-day threats to overturn sections of that landmark law.

The second half of our program took a surprising turn.  John Lewis and I discussed whether modern celebrants of the Voting Rights Act have become too defensive.   Are we focused dangerously on the past, without a forward vision?  Ten years after a Constitutional crisis in the election of 2000, we still have a hodge-podge system of paper ballots, registration barriers, and partisan election-day officials.  Also, we still have an outdated Electoral College, incumbent-driven scrimmages for re-apportionment in most states, and a national capital without voting representation in Congress.

Should we be looking ahead toward a refined election process that counts every vote fairly and equally?

If so, John and I agreed that the problems are very complex.  Ideal solutions are by no means obvious.  Election reform, like all significant changes, faces a variety of political and Constitutional hurdles.   It might take years just to design the best approach to each of the problems.  To start somewhere, we toyed with the idea of a “We the People” task force to work on the many components of an omnibus reform package.

Some specialists among the ACS lawyers responded positively, but no organization has stepped forward as a catalyst.  What do you think?  Is this a worthy task?  Who should lead?  Would it unwisely divert effort from defending the VRA of 1965?

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SNCC Conference – Patrick Jones

On April 15-18, I spent four glorious days at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There were nonstop songs, memories, speeches, workshops, arguments, and panel discussions amid copious hugs and laughter. More than a thousand grizzled veterans of the civil rights movement attended. Many introduced their children and grandchildren. The conference received a good bit of news coverage but deserved far more. In their youth, SNCC workers spearheaded lasting historical change from the sit-ins and Freedom Rides through the black power movement.

Here are some links, beginning with lush photographs by Patrick Jones:

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TV and Radio host Tavis Smiley interviewed me among many friends and colleagues for this broadcast.  The program was first presented on March 30, 2010.

View video >

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The Clinton Tapes in Paris

Published on 10 September 2010 by in General, The Clinton Tapes

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Late in March, my wife Christy and I went to Paris for a week to promote foreign language editions of The Clinton Tapes being published in several European countries. Spanish, Danish, and Dutch journalists asked questions along with French outlets ranging from the high-toned Le Figaro to a comedy show on national radio. Here is one of the tv interviews, with a French host who speaks accented English far better than my non-existent French.

For those who read Spanish, here is a print interview for the Spanish-language edition of the book, called “Las Grabaciones De Bill Clinton.” The story refers to me as Clinton’s “confessor,” or “confidante.”

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During my February 23 visit to Chapel Hill, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp invited me on his campus television show to talk about the Clinton book. The Chancellor has wide-ranging interests, including Beatles music.

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On MLK Day, January 18, President Obama and his wife Michelle invited me to join them in the Roosevelt Room for a small group discussion of the 1963 March on Washington. Most of the dozen other people there were elderly veterans of that event, including one couple who were both over 100 years old. Dorothy Height, who has since died to widespread notice for her long career in civil rights, was the only public figure among my fellow guests. Most of them told stories about the March and how it has affected their lives since. Both Obamas asked many questions, saying they wanted to hear stories inasmuch as they had been far too young to experience the March themselves.

[…]

I will respect their request for privacy about the discussions, but following are some links to news stories with general comments. Below are President Obama’s remarks:

Obama on Martin Luther King Day, 2008 photo gallery of his visit to King Atlanta church, gravesite (SunTimes Media)

Marking King Day, From Oval Office to Soup Kitchen (New York Times)

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On February 23, I went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for the formal opening of all my Clinton files, including dictation tapes and written exchanges with the President. They are are available to researchers who visit the Southern Historical Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library. These Clinton materials now join the much larger collection of civil rights research gathered for the King era trilogy, which I deposited in 2006.
To contact the library or review a finding aid for the Clinton and MLK files, go to: http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/b/Branch,Taylor.html

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Entering a new phase

Published on 23 August 2010 by in General

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My work has entered a new phase. After twenty-four years of enthralled labor on the King trilogy, I felt compelled in 2006 to disclose the side-project in which I had gathered raw materials for presidential history through eight years of confidential interviews with Bill Clinton at the White House. Now that The Clinton Tapes is published (2009), I am free again to choose fresh topics. It is a strange feeling.

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Lately, I have intensified research into the Founders and our early U.S. republic.  Although the focus has jumped back nearly two centuries, my chief interests are still the fundamentals of democracy as revealed in conflicts over freedom, faith, and race. My goal is to elevate our cynical and superficial public discourse, even a little bit, while enjoying the plunge into characters from an earlier time. This new blog invites readers to share thoughts about any of these related topics. It is experimental, so please feel free to initiate comments on matters great or small.

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