Fred Lee Robinson was born in Mont Meigs, Alabama, on 18th March, 1922. His mother, Alberta Robinson, later married William Shuttlesworth, a farmer. He worked as a labourer and a truck driver before graduating from Selma University (1951) and Alabama State College (1952). In 1953 Shuttlesworth became pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church.
In May 1956 Shuttlesworth established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). In December, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was illegal. Immediately, Shuttlesworth announced that the ACMHR would test segregation laws in Birmingham.
On Christmas Day, 1956, 16 sticks of dynamite exploded under his bedroom window. As his biographer, pointed out: "The following year, he and his wife tried to register their child at a white Birmingham high school. White thugs beat him with a knuckleduster, whips and chains."
In 1957 Shuttlesworth joined Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the main objective of the SCLC was to coordinate and assist local organizations working for the full equality of African Americans. The new organization was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."
Shuttlesworth's civil rights activities made him a target of white racists and on the evening of 25th December, 1956, Shuttlesworth survived a bomb blast that destroyed his house. The following year a white mob beat Shuttlesworth with whips and chains during an attempt to integrate an all-white public school. During this period Martin Luther King described Shuttlesworth as "the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South".
Godfrey Hodgson has pointed out: "Shuttlesworth always acknowledged King's leadership, and marched and went to jail with him. But when King came to Shuttlesworth's home town for a historic trial of strength with segregation, he did not like being taken for granted. At the climax of the crisis, when pictures of black demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and water cannon were going around the world, King began talks with a group of Jewish businessmen about desegregating their department stores. Shuttlesworth was not told about the talks, and he was not pleased."
In 1960 Shuttlesworth participated in the sit-in protests against segregated lunch counters and in 1961 helped Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) organize its Freedom Rides. When the riders were beaten up in Anniston, Shuttlesworth organised a convoy of 15 cars to rescue them. Later, when the riders were surrounded by a mob of about 1,000 armed white people, Shuttlesworth escorted civil rights leader, James Farmer, to his church. Farmer later recalled: "He was either insane or the most courageous man I have ever met. Shuttlesworth just walked through them, as cool as a cucumber. I think they were intimidated by his boldness."
Shuttlesworth also led the mass demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham and this resulted in him being hospitalized in May, 1963, after being slammed against a wall by water from fire hoses. A few days later it was announced: "1. Within 3 days after close of demonstrations, fitting rooms will be desegregated. 2. Within 30 days after the city government is established by court order, signs on wash rooms, rest rooms and drinking fountains will be removed. 3. Within 60 days after the city government is established by court order, a program of lunchroom counter desegregation will be commenced. 4. When the city government is established by court order, a program of upgrading Negro employment will be continued and there will be meetings with responsible local leadership to consider further steps."
In 1966 Shuttlesworth became pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church. He has also served as director of the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation, an organization which helps low-income families to buy their own homes, that he established in 1988. It has been claimed that the foundation assisted 460 low-income families to obtain houses. A biography by Andrew M. Manis, A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, was published in 1999.
In 2004 Shuttlesworth became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but resigned claiming that "deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten at the core of this once-hallowed organisation". He preached his last sermon in 2006, after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. In 2008 the Birmingham airport was renamed Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
Fred Shuttlesworth died on 5th October 2011.