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Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth: unsung hero of the civil rights movement.

In 1992, Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale University, made a speech to the National Press Club. In the question and answer period that followed, he made an offhand reference to Eugene "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's infamous Commissioner of Public Safety and the symbol of the South's "massive resistance" to racial integration. Connor was the most obvious antagonist in the drama that produced the most powerful images of the civil rights movement--the dogs and fire hoses of the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations. In that room full of journalists, young as well as old, Schmidt never bothered to explain the reference. He could invoke Connor's name without feeling the need to identify him. By contrast, the name of the drama's real protagonist, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, has dropped from America's historical consciousness.

To the extent that they still think about the civil rights movement in general or its Birmingham phase in particular, most Americans--black and white alike--mistakenly think of Martin Luther King Jr. as Connor's nemesis that spring. To find Connor's real counterpart, however, one must look more locally, to the native Birmingham leader who spent seven years of "socio-spiritual" "Bull" fighting in the period leading up to 1963. That journalists--not to mention their readers--recognize Connor's name but cannot recall or never knew the contributions of Fred Shuttlesworth is itself good reason to attend to his story.

Fred Shuttlesworth as Unsung Hero

Fred Shuttlesworth is clearly one of the most unsung of the many heroes of the American Civil Rights movement. Put very bluntly, without Fred Shuttlesworth, the 1963 Birmingham protests could not have happened, and without those demonstrations Congress would have ended racial segregation in public accommodations later than it did. That notable contribution alone makes Shuttlesworth's story worth spending time on. Another reason, however, is the story's compelling drama. In good literature, the classic formula for drama is a strong protagonist, a strong antagonist, conflict between them that builds in intensity to a climax and a denouement. All the elements are there in the story of Fred Shuttlesworth and his seven-year battle with Eugene "Bull" Connor. (1)

Shuttlesworth was a black Baptist pastor in Birmingham. He had grown up there in a rural, black community on the outskirts of a town called Oxmoor. After high school, he was educated in a small unaccredited Bible academy in Mobile called Cedar Grove, and after that at the black Baptist Selma University. His first pastorate was First Baptist Church (Colored) in Selma, where he and his authoritarian ways quickly ran afoul of certain powerful deacons. In 1953, he became the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, where his civic activities preceded the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. to the pastorate of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. After the state of Alabama outlawed the NAACP in May 1956, he became the founder and president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), one of the original officers of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and by 1963, he became, in King's words, "one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters." (2)

No one in the civil rights movement more resolutely and directly confronted segregation than Shuttlesworth. No one in the movement more regularly and over a sustained period of time deliberately put himself in a position to be killed than Shuttlesworth. He may have one or two possible equals, but no one could surpass him. At times, his bravado led friend and foe alike to question his sanity, as he vowed to "kill segregation or be killed by it." And as they say, he not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. Some stories will illustrate. But let me put these stories in the framework of a larger argument about the ministry of Fred Shuttlesworth.

The fact that so few Americans have heard of him testifies to an "unsung" quality, and just to tell these stories about him easily establishes his heroism. Beyond emphasizing the obvious, then, I want to argue that in the life and ministry of Fred Shuttlesworth, both in the church and in the streets, can be found a rather pure embodiment of the fiery, combative spirituality of African American Christian faith.

Shuttlesworth and African American Christian Spirituality

Theologian James H. Evans Jr. has written of the "heavenly fire" of black Christianity. Similarly, social critic Cornel West has drawn attention to what he calls Afro-America's "combative spirituality." "Fiery glad" instead of "fiery mad," this distinctively African-American spirituality looks disappointment and despair and death in the face and declares that beyond all these there is hope.

Perhaps more than anyone in the entire civil rights movement, Fred Shuttlesworth embodied this fiery, "combative spirituality." (3) His life reveals the development of a charismatic and confrontational personality who withstood and often created considerable conflict in all his important relationships and contexts--family, segregated southern society, his churches, and the civil rights movement. Shuttlesworth's combustible persona waxed hot against those he saw as enemies of righteousness and justice, attracting true believers to its incandescence. Lit in an impoverished and rural southern home, fueled in the hearth of the African-American church, Fred Shuttlesworth's fiery and combative spirituality flamed most dramatically in its encounter with Birmingham and Bull Connor.

Somewhere in his writings, Lewis Baldwin once wrote about his fellow African Americans that, given their history in America, "if it hadn't been for religion and the Black Church, we would have lost our minds." In the same vein, Carlyle Fielding Stewart has recently asked, "When you think of all the hell blacks have caught--centuries of murders, atrocities, floggings, lynchings, rebuke, discrimination, oppression, alienation, exploitation, degradation, and human devaluation--you have to ask, how did they keep from losing their minds or their souls in despair?" So Stewart argues that "African American spirituality has made [blacks] soul survivors and ... has enabled African American people to face, confront, and transcend spiritually their social, political, and ontological condition." (4)

Beyond being a spirituality of survival, however, Cornel West emphasizes the combative nature of African-American spirituality, which "preserves meaning by fighting the claims that African Americans are inferior or deficient." Another way of describing this spirituality is as "an alternative consciousness, an oppositional way of seeing ... that affirms those expressions of black culture that cannot be completely domesticated by the dominant culture and society." (5) West's list of characteristics of combative spirituality can be whittled down to a short list of components. Fred Shuttlesworth exemplified these components as much as anyone in the entire black freedom struggle.

Resistance in the Present Against Overwhelming Odds

First, West talks about it in terms of "resistance in the present against overwhelming odds." A combative spirituality "breeds a defiant dissatisfaction with the present and encourages action" and "an openness to seize credible liberation opportunities." (6) All of this is clearly noticeable in Fred Shuttlesworth. Once he was caught up in what King called the Zeitgeist of the Civil Rights movement, Shuttlesworth was defiantly dissatisfied with the racial status quo. He unremittingly looked for opportunities for liberation, or at least occasions to resist Connor. He began trying to desegregate the police department, then the buses, then the bus terminal, eventually the schools and all public accommodations. He attacked segregation "on all fronts." Think of the power of "Bull" Connor over the politics of Birmingham. Think of the thralldom of segregation as an idea in the mind of the white South. Put them both together and one can certainly imagine that the odds of success in "Bombingham" seemed overwhelming.

Yet in 1956, Shuttlesworth announced that unless segregated seating was ended, he and his followers would begin sitting in the front of city buses on December 26. On Christmas night, however, up to sixteen sticks of dynamite were rolled beneath the floor, under the bed where the minister lay. When he emerged from the blast with just a bump on the head, an inner, inaudible voice had told him "God saved me to lead the fight." If it was a kind of conversion experience for Shuttlesworth, it also converted his followers. One member of his church later said, "If we had seen Christ walk on water, we could not have been more reverent than we were when we saw Reverend Shuttlesworth come out of that house alive." (7) Private religious experience and public miracle reconfirmed his resolve. The next day, Shuttlesworth led integrated bus riding, just as promised and in the face of the bombing. (8) (Incidentally, his church was bombed three times, one of which was actually orchestrated by Connor. By contrast the Sixteenth Street church was bombed only once, though of course with more tragic results.) Still later, when called on to defend his actions to another black minister, he said: "If God tells me to jump, it's my place to jump, and it's up to God to fix a place for me to land." (9)

During seven years of ground-laying work, he was a thorn in Connor's side challenging segregation statutes in the streets and in the courts. When Connor began sending police detectives to weekly mass meetings to try to intimidate Shuttlesworth and his followers, Shuttlesworth retaliated by suing Connor and the police chief. But in an almost lighthearted effort to both tweak Connor and rally his own troops, Shuttlesworth acted as his own attorney so that he could cross-examine Connor himself. (10)

But he could push integrationists as well as segregationists, as he nearly pestered to death Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, insisting on more action in general and specifically demanding that they join forces with his organization to mount massive direct action protests in Birmingham. In April 1959, he wrote King complaining that he was not attacking segregation in Alabama vigorously enough. He saw civil rights leadership in Alabama as "much less dynamic and imaginative than it ought to be." "When the flowery speeches have been made," he wrote, "we still have the hard job of getting down and helping people.... We [SCLC] must move now, or else [be] hard put in the not too distant future, to justify our existence." Two months later Shuttlesworth wrote another impatient letter to King reiterating his call for action: "I had certainly expected to hear from you further on this matter before this time.... It is my feeling that the times are far too critical for us to get good solid ideas on what should be done in certain situations, and then take too long a time to put these ideas into action." (11)

This became a constant refrain as Shuttlesworth spearheaded or supported bus boycotts, student sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, boycotts of downtown businesses, and numerous lawsuits attacking segregation ordinances. Finally, when King's reputation had been somewhat tarnished by the unsuccessful Albany campaign in 1962, when he needed Shuttlesworth as much as vice versa, SCLC agreed to come to Birmingham in the spring of 1963. In those historic 1963 demonstrations, when not a drop of water from "Bull" Connor's infamous fire hoses fell on King or Abernathy, Shuttlesworth was slammed into the side of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and bruised a rib. Learning that Shuttlesworth had been taken from the scene in an ambulance, Connor was heard to grumble, "I wish they'd carried him away in a hearse." Without question, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could not have been passed without the Birmingham demonstrations of the previous year. Just as clearly, those demonstrations could never have succeeded apart from the work of Fred Shuttlesworth. Clearly, in Fred Shuttlesworth is embodied a powerful resistance to segregation in the face of overwhelming odds.

Historical Patience

Another element in "combative spirituality" is what West calls a "historical patience." (12) This was not a gradualism that involved waiting on the Lord or whites gradually to change things. Rather, it meant a confident philosophy of history that God, and not the likes of "Bull" Connor, was in control of events. Thus African-American spirituality could at the same time be dissatisfied yet patient because of its confidence of ultimate victory. Shuttlesworth's historical patience and sense of hope was based on the conviction that eventually God would bring segregation to an end, that God was doing just that in his own and the movement's activism. Indeed, all his activism was based on the spiritual conviction that because God was involved with the black freedom struggle, it could not be thwarted. As Martin Luther King once asked and answered, "How long? Not long--because the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." (13) And for Shuttlesworth, the clearest evidence of this was his own survival amid the danger of challenging Jim Crow and "Bull" Connor in Birmingham.

So in 1957, he announced to the press that he would enroll his daughters in the all-white Phillips High School. One week before the scheduled date, a young black man was attacked by four Klansmen, taken to their local klavern, where they beat him, castrated him, and poured turpentine on his wounds. They also gave him a message to pass on: "This is what will happen if Negroes keep trying to integrate our schools." There was little question as to who was the intended recipient of the message, since Fred Shuttlesworth was at that time the only Negro trying to integrate Birmingham's schools. (14) Despite the threat, however, on the designated day, Shuttlesworth and his wife were met by a mob at Phillips. As he got out of the car, they beat him with bats, brass knuckles, and bicycle chains. At the hospital when it was all over, the attending physician marveled that his patient didn't even sustain a concussion. The minister smiled and said, "Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town so he gave me a hard head." The minister's wife, who during the melee had been stabbed in the rear end, said that the only thing that bothered her was that modesty would prevent her from being able to show off her scar when she went to church the next Sunday. (15)

Subversive Joy

Such a note of levity in the midst of the often bloody confrontations of the civil rights movement suggests one other component of combative spirituality, namely its "subversive joy." West describes this as "the ability to transform tears into laughter." (16) That subversive joy could be seen in Shuttlesworth's ever-present smile, which he deliberately cultivated to make sure white folks wouldn't think he was worried. It could be heard in the laughter-filled mass meeting sermons where he often promised to de-horn or make a steer out of ol' "Bull." It could also be seen and heard in the midst of the 1963 demonstrations.

One day during the protests, Shuttlesworth found himself at Birmingham City Hall. While there he decided to test the public facilities, to see what "white water" tasted like. He found the rest rooms locked and water fountains turned off. As he leaned over to drink from the "white" water fountain, Connor came out of his office and said, "Well, I caught you." Shuttlesworth bantered with his long-time opponent, laughing about how Connor's policy was forcing him go across the street to the bus station to use the rest room. A few minutes later, entering the bus station rest room, the preacher found several police officers taking advantage of the facilities. He jovially asked, "What y'all doing in here?"

Standing at the urinal, one of the officers replied, "Hell, Reverend, segregation is hard on us, too, Bull's got us in the same position that you Negroes are in. We have to come over here to use the rest room. We are locked out." "Well, then that means y'all ought to get with us and we'll get it over with," he replied.

That evening, the mass meeting crowd roared its approval as Shuttlesworth regaled them with his retelling of his encounters with Connor and the police officers. "Today we Shuttlesworth at age 35 all got equal treatment, and that's what the law means. Equal and exact. Nobody could use the water, `cause the water fountain went dry. "Bull" couldn't drink nothin'. The judge couldn't drink nothin'. I couldn't drink anything. The sheriff, with all that power, couldn't drink anything." Switching his attention to another matter, he said, "We have always wondered what made these white folks act so crazy over these toilets. Whatever it is, we'll find out tomorrow. Tomorrow, we will use white toilets. I don't want a black man in a black toilet tomorrow. Let them use ours a while and we'll use theirs." (17)

An incident typifying not only Shuttlesworth's civil rights struggles, but also his life and ministry, occurred in 1959. For several weeks, the fire department had regularly interrupted ACMHR mass meetings. On this occasion, the wail of sirens once again drowned out the voices from the pulpit of the St. James Baptist Church. Moments later, firefighters rushed into the sanctuary wielding hoses and axes, ostensibly searching for a fire. Apprising Shuttlesworth that he had received a "report" of a fire in the building, the fire chief asked Shuttlesworth to clear the building. Shuttlesworth agitatedly replied, "Now Chief, we're just tired as hell of Bull Connor harassing us and we are about ready to just all of us go to jail. If Bull's got room enough to arrest all the thousands of us, okay. We are just tired! We are not going to move!" "This is no trick, Reverend," the chief pleaded. Shuttlesworth used the situation to full advantage. "Chief," he demanded, "can you assure me that this isn't Bull Connor harassing us? Because if this is Bull, we are staying! You will have to drag us out!" Finally satisfied with the chief's promise, the leader relented and ordered the meeting moved to another church a few blocks away. But not before getting in one last zinger: "Y'all think it's a fire in here? You know there ain't no fire here. The kind of fire we have in here, you can't put out with hoses and axes!" (18)

Perhaps there was no fire in St. James Baptist Church that night, but in the persona of Fred Shuttlesworth there burned "a fire you can't put out." As he moved from anonymity as a young pastor to national notoriety as a Civil Rights leader and finally to status as an icon of the movement, "a fire you can't put out" burned in him brightly. In time, this "old soldier" of the movement was forced to adjust to a declining national leadership role as events moved him out of the limelight and into the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr. Nonetheless, the fire of his youth remained unextinguished, burning prophetically in both his churchly and his more "secular" ministries. Resistance against overwhelming odds, a historical patience, and a subversive joy--these are the components of the fiery, combative spirituality of African American Christianity. They were fully embodied in the spiritual activism of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Cornel West has written that in black spirituality, "life is viewed as both a carnival to enjoy and a battlefield on which to fight." (19) Fred Shuttlesworth, by his claims "a fighter, not a writer," could hardly have said it better himself.

A Postscript for Twenty-first-Century Baptists

I conclude then with a postscript for Baptists: If there is anything quintessentially Baptist about the ministerial career of Fred Shuttlesworth, it was his willingness, and the willingness of his followers, to go counter to the culture around them. That sectarian, counter-cultural element is what made the earliest Baptists Baptist, both in England and in North America, both in the Arminian and the Calvinist camps. So, too, those early Separate Baptists who, after the Great Awakening, made their way into and eventually conquered the American South. Ironically, it was the dually demonic convictions of white supremacy and black inferiority that more than anything else turned the counter-cultural Separate Baptists into the culturally-captive Southern Baptists.

For that reason Baptists in the twenty-first century would do well to hark back to the mid-twentieth century and listen to the Civil Rights movement's unsung hero, Fred Shuttlesworth. But not that alone. Contemporary Baptists ought to go even further back to Shuttlesworth's ancestors in the slave quarters and the brush arbors. There, in what was called the ring shout, the slaves sang and danced in the Spirit, rhythmically moving in a circular direction--a holy song and dance that bore the marks of their free and African past. Every day the long, sad shadows moving clockwise around the sundial reminded them of their present world of enslavement. But in their ring shout they found the prophetic courage to move counter-clockwise, against the movement of the sun, against time as their masters defined it. Thus, in their circle of faith, they symbolically sang and danced their resistance to the life of slavery around them. (20)

Like Fred Shuttlesworth and his ancestors, and like our ancestors in the Baptist movement, let today's Baptists dance out that joyful, fiery African-American spirit against the grain of a still race-conscious, still theologically-stultifying culture. There is still much in both our secular and our religious culture that seeks to force human beings to march in lockstep. So circle up. Circle up with Brother Frederick Douglass. And line up with Sister Sojourner Truth. Gather in a counter-cultural circle with those nameless Christian slaves in the brush arbors. Circle up with those first Baptists, probably suffering from too much British reserve to dance, but moving against the grain nonetheless. Circle up with them all. Circle up and study their convictions and celebrate their countercultural and Baptist principles. Most of all, circle up with them and, if you are so inclined, pray for the day when we can sing as truly as did they:

Slav'ry chain done broke at last--

Gon' praise God 'til I die.


(1.) This article is a distillation and extension of the argument of my book, A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999). See also Marjorie White and Andrew M. Manis, eds. Birmingham's Revolutionaries: Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2000); Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The National and Local Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

(2.) Shuttlesworth interview with Joyce Ladner, November 19, 1969, Cincinnati, Ohio, cassette tape recording, Oral History Program, Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (King Center hereafter cited as MLKC); Martin Luther King Jr. Why We Can't Wait (New York: New American Library, 1963), 51.

(3.) On the central elements of African-American religion, see James H. Evans Jr. We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 2; Cornel West, Prophetic Fragments (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1988), 6; see West's interview with Bill Moyers in Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas II: Public Opinions from Private Citizens (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 105-06. The distinction between "fiery glad" and "fiery mad" is emphasized by Henry H. Mitchell, Celebration and Experience in Preaching, 63. This spirituality is an alternative consciousness that resists domination or "an oppositional way of seeing and being in the world that affirms those expressions of black culture that cannot be completely domesticated by the dominant culture and society." Carlyle Fielding Stewart III, Soul Survivors: An African American Spirituality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 5.

(4.) Stewart, 3.

(5.) Interview with Moyers, 105; Stewart, 5.

(6.) West, Prophetic Fragments, 6, 165.

(7.) Veronica Chappell Flemmon, interview, n.p.

(8.) "Who Speaks for Birmingham," CBS Television, May 14, 1961, transcript; Birmingham World, December 29, 1956, 1; New York Times, December 26, 1956, 1; Fred Shuttlesworth, interview, March 10, 1984, 24.

(9.) Shuttlesworth, interview, May 22-25, 1990.

(10.) Shuttlesworth, interview, May 29-June 1, 1990; Reverend F. L. Shuttlesworth and Reverend Charles Billups v. Eugene Connor and Jamie Moore, transcript, November 22, 1960, copy in Shuttlesworth Papers, box 3, MLKC.

(11.) Letter, Shuttlesworth to King, April 24, 1959, in Martin Luther King Jr. Papers, Boston University, Box 9, cited in David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1986), 116; Shuttlesworth to King, June ]5, 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. Papers, Box 9.

(12.) West, Prophetic Fragments, 6.

(13.) Martin Luther King Jr., "Our God is Marching On," in James Melvin Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986), 230.

(14.) Ben Allen, Quoted in Howell Raines, My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (New York: G. P, Putnam's Sons, 1977), 153; Birmingham News, September 4, 1957; Birmingham World, September 11, 1957, 1; William Bradford Huie, "A Ritual `Cutting' by the Ku Klux Klan," True (1964), copy of article in the David J. Vann papers, Birmingham Public Library. The article is based on trial transcripts and interviews with the victim, Judge Aaron.

(15.) Birmingham News, September 9, 1957; New York Times, September 10, 1957, 1, 25; Shuttlesworth, "Birmingham Revisited," Ebony (August 1971), 114, 116; Shuttlesworth, interview, October 27-31, 1988; Interview with Ricky Shuttlesworth Bester, October 30, 1988; Interview with Patricia Shuttlesworth Massengill, October 29, 1988.

(16.) West, in A World of Ideas II, 106.

(17.) Police Intelligence Report on April 15 mass meeting, R. S. Whitehouse and R. A. Watkins to Jamie Moore, April 17, 1963, Connor Papers, Box 13, Folder 4; Shuttlesworth interview, June 4-7, 1990.

(18.) Fred L. Shuttlesworth, interview with James Mosby, September 1968, Cincinnati, Ohio, Ralph Bunche Oral History Collection, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, 26-28; Shuttlesworth interview with Joyce Ladner, November 19,1969, Cincinnati, Ohio, cassette tape recording, Oral History Program, MLKC; See also transcript of Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Charles Billups v. Eugene T. Connor and Jamie Moore, November, 1960, Fred L. Shuttlesworth Papers, MLKC, 31-32; In a 1964 article, Shuttlesworth wrote: "We have been used to police attending mass meetings since 1958, but they came with sirens screaming, lights flashing, fire axes, rushing into buildings hunting `fires' which were not there--but failing to stampede Negroes or to extinguish the fire that wouldn't go out." See Fred Shuttlesworth, "Birmingham Shall Be Free Someday," Freedomways 4 (Winter 1964), 10. The incident at St. James Baptist Church took place on December 8, 1959, according to testimony in Shuttlesworth v. Connor, November 22, 1960, transcript in Shuttlesworth Papers, Box 3, MLKC.

(19.) West, Prophetic Fragments, 165.

(20.) This interpretation of the ring shout is suggested by Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 40.

Andrew M. Manis prepared this article while serving as editor, Religion and Southern Studies, Mercer University Press. He currently is lecturer in American History, Macon State College. His book was recently awarded the Lillian Smith Award by the Southern Regional Council, Atlanta Georgia.
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Author:Manis, Andrew M.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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