Andrew M. Manis. A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999. 445pp + notes and index. Cloth. 

In a time when the popular image of the Civil Rights Movement is so impoverished as to be limited to a snippet of Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Andrew Manis’ compelling and beautifully-written biography of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is a welcomed addition to the recent literature that has sought to remind us of the range of people who risked their lives in this struggle. Manis’ work seeks to overcome the fact that Shuttlesworth is one of these civil rights activists who labored under King’s shadow while King was alive and who has been largely forgotten since the end of the movement. Using interviews he conducted with Shuttlesworth, members of his family, co-workers in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) which Shuttlesworth led, and members of his congregations, Manis provides a rich supplement to the archival sources that are the stuff of traditional historical research. The twelve years of labor that went into producing this biography are evident in the thoroughness of the research and the care with which Manis tells the story of events in Birmingham and in Shuttlesworth’s life. 


"Andrew Manis makes an important contribution to a number of ongoing and related discussions in American religious history, African-American religious history and the history of the Civil Rights Movement."

And yet this is no hagiography as Manis works very hard to present a sympathetic portrait of Shuttlesworth while giving attention to the positions of his critics, some of whom argued that he was too often interested in gaining the media spotlight. Manis also makes very clear the toll that Shuttlesworth’s authoritarian style and relentless commitment to the movement took on his family. What emerges, then, is a nuanced and challenging biography in which Manis makes a strong case for such close attention to Shuttlesworth.  That the bulk of Shuttlesworth’s work took place in the context of Birmingham, an icon of entrenched segregation and a vitally important site in the struggle, allows Manis to use the case study to take up larger questions about the movement. 

Andrew Manis makes an important contribution to a number of ongoing and related discussions in American religious history, African-American religious history and the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The literature on the Civil Rights Movement often acknowledges that members of black churches were the footsoldiers in the struggle, that many of the central theorists of the movement were black ministers and that much of the movement’s rhetoric was overtly and profoundly Christian in character. David Garrow, Taylor Branch and others have explored some of the religious dimensions of the Civil Rights Movement in the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who formed the close circle of workers around him. It is far less clear, however, how the religious character of the Civil Rights Movement was shaped in local contexts and through ministers who were not as theologically liberal as King was and who did not have the kind theological training or the national spotlight that he did.

In A Fire You Can’t Put Out, Manis provides scholars with an extremely useful model for writing religious biography in the specific context of the Civil Rights Movement and more broadly. He takes seriously Shuttlesworth’s insistence that religious commitment and the demand for rights were intimately connected. Thus, the organization that Shuttlesworth and other Birmingham activists founded in 1956 becomes the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights as Shuttlesworth insisted that it “should be Christian in all respects, that all our actions, thoughts and deeds would be first, foremost, and always Christian (95).” Shuttlesworth believed that God was working through the Civil Rights Movement in general and through him in particular, understanding his emergence from the bombing of his home in 1956 as a divine miracle, for example. Throughout his account of Shuttlesworth’s activities in organizing and participating in protests, in legal battles over his many arrests, in confrontations with Bull Connor and other white Birmingham leaders, Manis never allows Shuttlesworth’s religious sensibility to move to the background. The book paints a vivid portrait of how Shuttlesworth and many of his followers in the ACMHR understood the relationship between their faith and their activism.

The book should be of interest to a general readership interested in American religious history and Civil Rights and of use to scholars working on religion and activism, the Civil Rights movement, African-American religious history, and religion in the South. It is perhaps too long for use in most undergraduate courses, but no one who invests the time to read Manis’ work will be disappointed.

Judith Weisenfeld, Yale University


 

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