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Birmingham School Renames Auditorium in Honor of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth

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From left: Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester; James Sullivan, Birmingham Board of Education District 5; Patricia Shuttlesworth Massengill after the auditorium at Phillips Academy was dedicated in honor of Civil Rights great Fred Shuttlesworth. (Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson, For The Birmingham Times)

By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson

For The Birmingham Times

Patricia Shuttlesworth Massengill, 80, — daughter of the legendary Birmingham Civil Rights leader Fred L. Shuttlesworth – said she tries to make as many events as she can to honor her father, but the one on Monday brought back tough memories.

Massengill and her sister, Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester, 78, were in attendance as the J. H. Phillips Academy auditorium was dedicated in their father’s name.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was brutally beaten and hospitalized after he attempted to enroll his daughter in the white, flagship school for Birmingham City Schools in 1957 and his wife Ruby Keeler Shuttlesworth was stabbed in the leg and Bester also injured.

“The major trauma for me was the beating he took here at Phillips,” Massengill told students. “I was traumatized to the point that I never discussed any of this with my children. I have three kids and five grandkids and two great grands.”

The ceremony came three days after the City of Birmingham commemorated the 60th year anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls. That horrific event and the activism by leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Shuttlesworth would help desegregate Birmingham and other cities across the South.

While growing up, Massengill said her father required an atmosphere of positivity, even with what happened at Phillips. “Daddy didn’t allow any negativity in the house. We had to remain positive about everything. Even though he was beaten he never looked at it negatively in front of us. He said the Lord provides and the Lord protects.”

When Bester was asked by media what she believed her father would say if he attended the dedication ceremony she said sincere gratitude would fill his heart.

Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester interviewed by news media after the auditorium at Phillips Academy was dedicated in honor of her father, Civil Rights great Fred Shuttlesworth. (Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson, For The Birmingham Times)

“I believe he would say thank you,” said Bester. “He always believed in praising God for what was done.”

And she added her father wouldn’t stop there as she looked about the school’s recently renovated auditorium. “Then he’d look about the audience and find a way to keep inspiring someone to press forward.”

The Birmingham Board of Education voted to name the auditorium in honor of Shuttlesworth in August.

And not only did Birmingham City Schools join Phillips Academy in commemorating Shuttlesworth’s legacy, but the event also honored the first Black students who sought enrollment at the school Sept. 9, 1957 including Bester and Massengill.

“My word to you today is what my parents and my dad taught us,” said Bester. “Always love what is good and do what is good and when things happen and people talk about you, be like the ducks and let it slide off your back.”

“Silence speaks volumes and you don’t have to answer every negative thing, because I’ve learned in 78 years people will try to push your buttons to get you acting like a fool. That happened in ‘57 and the law was not changed until 1963, but look what has come out. I want you to make your school proud and be the best that you can be.”

Shuttlesworth has two other children who were not in attendance – Fred Shuttlesworth, Jr., 76, and Carolyn Shuttlesworth, 74. But other family friends and supporters were in attendance.

Massengill and Bester recognized Richard Rucker, longtime Shuttlesworth family friend, educator and author. “It’s just such an honor to stand in the school that would not admit Rev. Shuttlesworth and his children in 1957 and to see you all here today is a victory for you and for our country,” Rucker said.

Marie King, Emmy-nominated producer, was also recognized. “I had the great pleasure of producing a documentary about the Rev. Shuttlesworth that was Emmy-nominated. I have been blessed to know this family and for them inviting me in,” she said.

The ceremony’s opening words by Dr. Emeka Nzeocha, Phillips Principal and the program emcee, captured the tone of the event. “It’s about the efforts of someone like the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth who dedicated and sacrificed his life for us to walk in here free.”

The Reverend Shuttlesworth was born in Mount Meigs, Alabama in 1922 and died at the age of 89 in 2011 in Birmingham.