By Nicole S. Daniel
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on Friday presented Civil Rights leader, veteran radio broadcaster and advertising executive Dr. Shelley Stewart with the “Putting People First” award, one of the city’s top honors.
The presentation at Boutwell Auditorium in downtown came during the annual AWAKEN event which celebrates the legacy of community leaders and activists and held during the week of the Magic City Classic.
Woodfin pointed out that Stewart, known as the radio voice for the Civil Rights movement, made a difference in Birmingham by using his voice and radio platform.
He was known for organizing training meetings for Birmingham’s Black residents to learn non-violent forms of protest during ’50’s and ‘60’s. Stewart also used his radio show to distribute information about planned demonstrations and had a key role in training the youth protesters who marched in the 1963 Children’s Crusade. He often used the broadcast to misdirect police while telling others in code where they could meet safely to plan for demonstrations.
Stewart’s influence during the Civil Rights Movement was cemented when, after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, he helped Dr. Martin Luther King coordinate the Children’s March.
Asked about communicating with young people nearly 60 years ago, Stewart said,
“As I sat behind that microphone I was a person to deal with the masses not the classes .I was a mass communicator not a class communicator. I was able to do things on the radio to bring people together. That’s what it’s all about, relationships,” Stewart said.
He ended his remarks on Friday by saying to the audience, “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your lives for many years on the air. I’m still that little homeless kid but remember nothing starts at the top except for the hole in the ground.”
He has been inducted into The National Black Radio Hall of Fame; the Birmingham Business Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Stewart, 88, was born in 1934 and raised in Rosedale, an African American neighborhood south of downtown Birmingham. He graduated school with honors, and, unable to attend college, spent two years in the Air Force before returning to Birmingham and starting his career with WEDR Radio. His 55-year career in radio would earn him the distinction of becoming the longest-running radio talent in the nation.
In 2008, he acquired full ownership of the Steiner Bressler advertising agency which is now known as o2ideas.
In 2019, the inaugural AWAKEN paid tribute to Dr. Richard Arrington Jr., the first Black mayor of the city of Birmingham. In 2021, the city honored Odessa Woolfolk, a veteran educator, community leader, and founding president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.