For whatever reason, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth doesn’t have the same name recognition that many of the great civil rights leaders do, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Ralph David Abernathy.
Andrew Manis, a history professor at Middle Georgia State College, would like to change that.
Manis has already told the story of Shuttlesworth to great acclaim with his 1999 biography, “A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.” The book earned many accolades, including the 2000 Lillian Smith Book Award, the 2001 James F. Sulzby Prize from the Alabama Historical Association, and the 1999 James McMillan Award.
Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Papers Project at Stanford University, named it one of 27 essential books on the civil rights movement in 2002 for The Washington Post, while King biographer David Garrow listed the book as one of nine “suggested readings” about the movement.
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Now Manis has launched a Kickstarter campaign -- a funding platform for creative projects -- to help turn the book into a feature film. Though Manis has been working for years to get a movie made about Shuttlesworth’s life, the current success of “Selma” -- nominated for Best Picture in this year’s Academy Awards -- could boost the project.
“Getting this on the big screen is really a sense of calling,” Manis said. “‘Selma’ mentions (Commissioner of Public Safety) Bull Connor four or five times but never mentions Fred Shuttlesworth. The kind of stuff (Shuttlesworth) did was so incredible, you’d think he was an action hero. He did death-defying stuff challenging the segregation laws in Birmingham.
“This was a place where people were killed and maimed, but this man didn’t care” about his safety.
‘FEEL THE TENSION’
Manis, 60, is a Birmingham native who was 9 years old when the 1963 demonstrations took place in the city.
“That was one of the events of childhood that made you grow up faster,” he said. “You knew it was a crisis. There was a good deal of hostility toward blacks. It was easy to feel the tension.”
That tension was present in Manis’ own home.
“One time, my mother called me in from the playground and said, ‘The blacks are causing trouble again,’ ” he said.
As he grew up, Manis intended to become a minister and studied at Samford University. While there, he took a course in political ideas in which a young, white professor made the class read King’s “Why We Can’t Wait.”
“He was the first white person I knew who ever said anything nice about Martin Luther King,” Manis said. “What won me over was King’s version of Christianity. I continued to be fascinated by the movement.”
While he was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Manis wrote a paper on the Southern Baptist response to King’s assassination.
While there, Manis visited his uncle in Cincinnati, Ohio, a builder who had just built Shuttlesworth’s new church there. His uncle soon set up a meeting between Manis and Shuttlesworth.
“In 1978, I was talking to a legend of the civil rights movement,” Manis said. “The school asked me to invite him to speak, and they let me introduce him. I’ve been introducing him to audiences ever since.”
In 1986, Manis began a series of more than 70 hours’ worth of interviews with Shuttlesworth, documenting his life and the history of the movement in Birmingham.
“I don’t think any civil rights leader has done that extensive an interview,” he said. “From that very first day 29 years ago, I thought that if (the story) was done right, someday it was going to be a movie.”
Manis said there are a few reasons why Shuttlesworth hasn’t gotten his due. He often challenged King and lacked King’s sense of political savvy, approaching the movement instead as a Southern preacher only.
Shuttlesworth also lived a long time, dying in 2011.
“He didn’t die as a martyr, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Manis said, noting that Shuttlesworth survived two bombing attempts. “He had this sort of divine lunacy, like David versus Goliath or Daniel in the lion’s den. The most militant people in the movement often looked to Fred Shuttlesworth instead of King. Some people thought (Shuttlesworth) was a lunatic or out for his own glory.
“Fred Shuttlesworth was a preacher. He never intended to be anything else. He attacked segregation with a sense of joy. He had a sense he knew he’d be on the winning side.”
MAKING A MOVIE
Manis said Shuttleworth’s life of laughing in the face of danger as well as his charisma should make his role in a movie one that any actor would want to portray.
He and screenwriter Denise Snaer were working with a producer, but that producer dropped out after recovering from brain surgery. That means there’s a funding gap that Manis and Snaer hope to fill through Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website used with great success in funding other projects.
For example, actor/director Zach Braff was able to get his movie “Wish I Was Here” made because of money raised through Kickstarter. Writer/director Rob Thomas did the same with a movie version of his old TV series, “Veronica Mars.”
Manis isn’t seeking to raise the entire budget for a movie. Instead, he’s looking for $30,000 to help revise the script and market it to Hollywood executives.
The episodes depicted in “Selma” were made possible only by previous events that happened in Birmingham, Manis noted. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were struggling to change the national mind-set about civil rights. Manis said Shuttlesworth had urged King for years to march in Birmingham, and King finally did so when the movement was at its lowest point.
“What happened in Selma is based on what happened in Birmingham,” Manis said. “If there was no Birmingham, there would have been no Selma. And there’s no Birmingham without Fred Shuttlesworth.”
When Shuttlesworth died, civil rights leader Andrew Young said at his funeral that at one point Shuttlesworth saved the civil rights movement. Manis said King might not have won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize without the events of Birmingham.
Snaer said “Selma” has opened the door for many stories about the movement to be told.
“Civil rights (movies) are its own genre, just like sci-fi or anything else,” she said. “This would be more of a character-driven story. I think this is a very important story within civil rights -- profound is what I’d say. ... ‘Selma’ opened the way, but it doesn’t tell everything.”
Snaer said she was attracted to the project because of Shuttlesworth’s larger-than-life aspect.
“Definitely, Fred Shuttlesworth works as a character,” she said. “He was a real person who was willing to throw his body away. Unlike some of the other books (about the movement), Andrew got his story from Fred, right from the horse’s mouth. Without Fred, none of the other things would have happened. This is an American hero whose story needs to be told.”
To learn more about the Kickstarter project, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/1323219038/a-fire-you-cant-put-out.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.