Van Ens: Civil rights history teaches us to gain courage to hang in there (column)
Black Baptist preacher Fred Shuttlesworth courageously battled racial taunts and terror when he protested for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama. Starting in the early 1950s, he served as a key aide to Martin Luther King Jr. Both marched against racism that caused hunger, squalor and homelessness.
Seldom shy regarding racism, Shuttlesworth announced on Christmas morning in 1956 that he intended to board a segregated city bus and sit in the white section. That Christmas evening, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his house.
This preacher’s flinty attitude inspires courage. We don’t acquire fortitude prior to first using it. Rather, courage develops only after timid people enter the battle.
Scripture teaches “… We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance …” (Romans 5:3). The Greek word for “sufferings” depicts brutish pressures weighing on us. To endure means to survive heavy pressures by hanging in there.
Novelist Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.” He reveals a difficult fact: When we rely on grace to endure hardship, expect stressful pressures alongside it.
Historian Diane McWhorter recounts what occurred after police arrived at Shuttlesworth’s home engulfed in flames. He lay in bed before the KKK’s incendiary attack.
“A voice rose from the wreckage: ‘I’m not coming out naked,’” writes McWhorter of Shuttlesworth’s response. Courage is often clothed in heroic rebuttals to what’s despicable.
“And, after a few moments, Shuttlesworth emerged in a raincoat someone threw into the parsonage’s rubble. He was not crippled, nor bloodied or blind: He wasn’t even deaf, though the blast had blown windows out of houses a mile away. … Shuttlesworth raised a biblical hand to the concerned neighbors, and said, ‘The Lord has protected me. I am not injured.’
“A big cop was crying, ‘Reverend, I know these people,’ he said of the bombers. ‘I didn’t think they would go this far. If I were you, I’d get out of town. These people are vicious.’
“‘Well, officer, you’re not me,’ Shuttlesworth said. ‘Go back and tell your Klan brothers that if the Lord saved me from this, I’m here for the duration. The fight is just beginning,’” (“Carry Me Home: Birmingham Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” Touchstone, 2002, p. 97).
Some parishioners feared bloodshed if they sat alongside whites in buses. The morning after the firebombing, they begged Shuttlesworth to abort the bus protest. “Hell, yeah, we’re going to ride!” he exclaimed.
Our choices are: exercise courage or avoid its practice. Hanging in there or hanging back are stark opposites. If we stop fighting for social justice or beg off working to achieve economic parity, then it’s as if we tie nooses around our necks.
Writer E.M. Forster announced: “Either life entails courage, or it ceases to be life.” Mere biological existence feels banal, dull and leaves us stuck in tedium. Holding back sucks oxygen from life, like smothering ourselves by tightening a noose.
Remember this poem by Robert Browning Hamilton that serves as an anthem for those who hang in there. “I walked a mile with pleasure/ She chatted all the way/ But left me none the wiser/ For all she had to say.
“I walked a mile with sorrow/ And ne’er a word said she/ But, oh! The things I learned from her/ When sorrow walked with me.”
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth learned this poem’s lesson. He advanced despite obstacles ahead. He suffered for righteous causes. He endured.
Shuttlesworth’s courage grew when he pushed forward against racism. Courage comes when we hang in there in battles to restore racial equality.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.