Wife of late civil rights leader reflects on his legacy at Town & Gown lecture

Sephira Shuttlesworth
Photo by Matt McDaniel
Sephira Shuttlesworth
Sephira Shuttlesworth, Union alumna and civil rights activist, speaks Feb. 20 as a part of the Town & Gown lecture series in Providence Hall. | Photo by Matt McDaniel

After a full day of braving snow, flight delays and the threat of tornadoes in Memphis, Sephira Shuttlesworth still began her Town & Gown lecture by giving thanks to God as the one who has constantly sustained her.

Shuttlesworth, a Union alumna, spoke Feb. 20 at the most recent lecture in the series about her husband and the role he played in the Civil Rights movement as well as the legacy he left behind.

The Jackson native, along with her brother and sister, was among the first African Americans to integrate Pope Elementary School in 1965.

She later spent 23 years as an elementary school principal.

After years of friendship with the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the two were married in 2006.

Her husband played a crucial role in the Civil Rights movement and was a part of the “Big Three” alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

As a part of the lecture, Shuttlesworth spoke about her late husband, who died in 2011.

Rev. Shuttlesworth grew up in Alabama as the oldest of nine children.

During his 20s he decided he wanted to be a preacher.

Shuttlesworth went to school and graduated as valedictorian from Selmer and then went on to obtain nine doctoral degrees.

His ministry was social justice and he worked hard to change the status quo.

During the Civil Rights movement, her husband was sued multiple times, his life was threatened a number of different ways and he survived several bombings to the church he pastored, as well as to his home.

However, her husband continued to exhibit perseverance through all of these circumstances.

“It was extremely eye-opening to hear about all the life-threatening situations Dr. Shuttlesworth’s husband had to go through,” said Elise Seufert, sophomore social work major. “The story that I found most amazing was the bombing where the police officers could not believe that he made it out alive. It was great to be able to see how God had perfectly protected him in that moment.”

Shuttlesworth said at the time, leadership in Birmingham and in Alabama were not ready for change.

The Rev. Shuttlesworth was an avid advocate of change. He educated himself and spent hours reading up on the latest legislature in the library looking for loopholes, she said.

“Courage, leadership, and perseverance, that’s my Fred,” Shuttlesworth told the crowd.

She also spoke on her own legacy, saying, “Mine will be gratitude and love.”

Clare Williams, a sophomore intercultural studies major, said she was struck by how Shuttlesworth spoke of legacy.

“I loved how Dr. Shuttlesworth framed her lecture around the idea of legacy — her legacy, her husband’s legacy, the legacy left by our ancestors during the Civil Rights movement and the legacy we, as members of today’s society, will leave,” Williams said. “The Rev. was clearly a very driven man who was passionate about what he stood for and conscious of the legacy his actions would leave.”

Toward the end of his life, Fred Shuttlesworth had a stroke and was unable to speak.

It was only then his wife realized why she had heard the same stories Fred told over and over again, she said.

In the last years of his life, she became her husband’s voice and told his stories to others, which Seufert said impressed her.

“I believe the way Dr. Shuttlesworth became her husband’s voice after he had a stroke displayed how much she cared for the cause he fought so hard for, and this was her way of fighting right alongside of him,” Seufert said.

Williams said she was moved by the selfless example Shuttlesworth set by taking care of her husband.

“Dr. Shuttlesworth said she understood the reason when the reverend had his stroke and slowly began to debilitate; she had to know those stories because she had to tell them for him,” Williams said. “She had to become the voice of a man who built the foundation of his legacy simply with words. She understood the burden of responsibility, but you can tell by the smile on her face and laughter in her sentences that she counted that responsibility as a blessing.”

Shuttlesworth resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as the leader of the Mid-Michigan Leadership Academy in Lansing, Mich.

The lecture was conducted in Providence Hall and featured a live feed of the event for the Hendersonville and Germantown campuses.


Image courtesy of Cardinal & Cream|Cardinal & Cream
About Lydia Wright 38 Articles
Lydia Wright is a member of the graduating class of 2015 and the Sports Editor for the Cardinal & Cream. A public relations major and marketing minor, Lydia is also a member of the Union University volleyball team and avid sports enthusiast.