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Civil rights pioneer take audience on long march

I couldn't believe the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was apologizing Wednesday.

Shuttlesworth's speech was running long at the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival kickoff luncheon at the University of South Florida, so he paused more than once to ask forgiveness.

I was incredulous. If God could give the 82-year-old civil rights leader more time, the audience certainly could.

God? How else can you explain Shuttlesworth's resiliency? As a pastor and activist in Birmingham, Ala., he was arrested 35 times, beaten by the Ku Klux Klan and hospitalized after being battered by water from a fire hose.

And he lived to tell about his home being blown up with dynamite.

"There I was lying in the bed, but I was in the arms of God," Shuttlesworth said. "The floor had been blown out from under the bed, and I could hear somebody say, "Be still, I'm here.' I didn't get a scratch, ladies and gentlemen."

The audience applauded, and hardly anyone left early. Civil rights pioneers command that kind of respect.

Shuttlesworth, interim president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, personally worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy during the height of the movement. He constantly challenged Birmingham's segregationist laws and legendary police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor.

His speech was a trip down memory lane, filled with humor and horror. He spoke about the time Dr. King, always genuine and unpretentious, interrupted a telephone conversation with President John F. Kennedy to tell Abernathy to bring him another piece of chicken.

He also held the audience's attention with tales of the Freedom Rides. Bus passengers trying to end segregation on Southern routes were beaten and at least one vehicle was torched when it reached Alabama.

With all that behind him, Shuttlesworth seems anything but bitter. He says signs of progress make him believe the beatings he took were worth it.

"I don't think we should be enemies," Shuttlesworth said. "I never thought that, even when I was getting the hell beaten out of me."

Shuttlesworth also noted his concern about violence among young people and said the civil rights movement should inspire them to take a stand against evil.

"It's hard right now to believe what happened back then, how bad the country was," Shuttlesworth said. "I speak to teachers now and I say, "Speak the Truth.' American history is stuck with sordid events and yet, this is a great country.

"As much as I've taken, I still think this is a great country. I just don't think we're as courageous in our commitment to keep going forward until we get full justice."

Tampa's new postmaster, John Nagle, also made a special presentation at the luncheon, unveiling the U.S. Postal Service's new Marian Anderson stamp, the latest in its Black Heritage Series. Framed copies of an enlarged stamp went to Shuttlesworth and members of the Black Heritage Festival committee that staged the lunch at USF's Gibbons Alumni Center.

Anderson, a classically trained singer, rose to prominence when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in 1939 because she was black.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so outraged she resigned from the DAR and helped Anderson stage an Easter Sunday performance, which drew 75,000 to the Lincoln Memorial. The incident raised awareness of the unfair treatment black entertainers endured.

It's worth noting the official commemoration of the stamp will take place Jan. 27 at Constitution Hall. Daughters of the American Revolution president Presley Merritt Wagoner will participate.

Such news makes me want to sing.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or