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Befriending the Person Who Beat Him Up

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a pastor in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1950s, was called by the historian Andrew Manis “one of the least known but most impactful figures in the civil rights movement.” He was, by his own estimate, arrested in peaceful protests some 30 to 40 times. His house was bombed with his whole family inside one Christmas Eve. His church was subjected to three different bombing attempts

On September 9, 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act and lawyers sought injunctive relief to force Arkansas to integrate Central High in Little Rock. On that very day, Shuttlesworth organized the integration of Phillips High School in Birmingham, driving his own two children to the school to enroll them.

He was met by a white mob that beat him with baseball bats, chains, and brass knuckles. As he was beginning to lose consciousness, Shuttlesworth recounts that “something” said to him: “You can’t die here. Get up. I have a job for you to do.” In the hospital later that day, a reporter asked Shuttlesworth what he was working for in Birmingham. He responded: “For the day when the man who beat me and my family with chains at Phillips High School can sit down with us as a friend.”

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