Sad to See You Leaving 2011: Fred Shuttlesworth and Bill Waller

by Jackie_South on December 27, 2011

2011 saw the death of two outstanding figures from the American Civil Rights era.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

From 1956 onwards Fred Shuttlesworth (seated centre in the photo) played the role of the Birmingham, Alabama equivalent to Montgomery’s Martin Luther King.   Along with King he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the civil rights movement in the South.

He led the campaign for desegregating the buses in Alabama’s largest city, played a critical co-ordinating role in the Freedom Rides, joined the lunch counter sit-ins and led the campaign of confronting the Ku Klux Klan’s political control in Birmingham.

He often challenged King to act rather than just talk and he was also a leading proponent of non-violent resistance.   Despite the fact that several attempts were made on his life, he was utterly fearless: he vowed “to kill segregation or be killed by it”.

He has been rightly lauded in the twenty-first century: one of Bill Clinton’s last acts as president was to award him the Presidential Citizens Medal and three years ago Birmingham’s airport was renamed the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in his honour.

Former Governor Bill Waller

William Waller Sr.As we’ve commented before, whilst Alabama got much of the attention in the Civil Rights era, Mississippi was even more segregated and often psychotically murderously so.

When Medgar Evers, the leading black civil rights activist working on desegregating the University of Mississippi was murdered in 1963 by Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the local White Citizens Council, Bill Waller got the job of prosecuting the case in front of an all-white jury.  Few believed that the case would even get to trial, and the fact it did was down to Waller’s efforts.

He didn’t get the conviction at either of the trials held in 1964 – but he did persuade enough of the juries both times to get a hung verdict.  This in itself was remarkable in the state at that time.  That lack of an acquittal meant that de la Beckwith was finally sentenced for the murder 30 years later and died in jail.

Waller stood for governor of Mississippi in 1971, defeating the segregationalist Lieutenant Governor Charles Sullivan for the Democratic nomination through uniting white working class and black votes.  That was no mean feat given that in 1964 the two communities sent rival delegations to the Democratic convention and that still to this day the party is organised on racial lines in many parts of the state, with each section backing its own part of the Democrat slate.  Yet his efforts meant that both were supporting the nomination of white Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Waller went on to win the election itself: the Republicans declined to stand and so ironically enough the only other candidate was Medgar Evers brother.  Once elected governor, he became the first to hold that position in the state to appoint African Americans to state offices.  He started with the state College Board, given all the strife there had been to get black students accepted in the state’s universities.

Mississippi still has a long way to go, but Waller deserves recognition for how far it has traveled.  His administration is recognized as the turning point in the state’s segregationalist history.

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