The Significance of a Statue

By Megan Durden

Civil Rights Movement memorials across the United States play significant roles in keeping the movement’s legacy alive. These memorials serve as reminders of the bravery that had to be shown to end segregation that existed in Birmingham, Alabama. One leader who helped change the social structure of Birmingham and America was Fred Shuttlesworth. In order to inspire the public with the influence that Shuttlesworth’s example had on the movement, a statue was sculpted and placed at the front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The Fred Shuttlesworth statue symbolizes his leadership in changing the course of history.

Figure 1: Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (1992) by John Rhoden as it is displayed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The statue is displayed in the front of the building near the entrance. Photo: David Bains (2019). 

Fred Shuttlesworth was born on March 18, 1922, in Mount Meigs, Alabama, and died October 5, 2011, in Birmingham. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Selma University (International Civil Rights: Walk of Fame). In Selma, he began preaching at First Baptist Church. He later moved to Birmingham where he became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church (Rop). While preaching in Birmingham, Shuttlesworth played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement by “galvanizing marches and demonstrations that placed Birmingham in the vortex of the Civil Rights Movement” (Boyd). Shuttlesworth was known for his bravery. He endured physical attacks while attempting to integrate schools (International Civil Rights: Walk of Fame). Ku Klux Klan members attempted to murder Shuttlesworth five times. One time, by setting fire to his home when he, his family, and a few people from his church were inside (KKK Bombs Alabama Home). Fred Shuttlesworth’s notable bravery and perseverance played a significant role in inspiring others to continue fighting for equality during the movement.

Creating the Statue 

The Shuttlesworth statue is located in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This museum was designed to help teach about the Civil Rights Movement and is located where historic events took place. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s mission is “to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.” Kelly Ingram Park is located across the street. This park is notable because it is where civil rights activists were sprayed by fire hoses and attacked with police dogs (Gallagher). Across Sixth Avenue from the museum is Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where a bomb set by Ku Klux Klan members killed four girls (Miller-Medzon).

To educate people about these historic events, Birmingham mayor David Vann, proposed the plan to build an interpretive museum. However, while Vann was mayor, a police officer, who had six complaints for excessive force, shot Bonita Carter, a young African American female (“Bonita Carter”). Due to his support for the police officer, Vann lost the support of the black community and his seat as mayor (Dwyer and Alderman 61). Later, Richard Arrington, Birmingham’s first black mayor, carried out Vann’s proposal. The Civil Rights Institute opened in 1992, costing over twelve million dollars (63). These funds came from “the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County, and a four million dollar commitment from local corporations” (63). Now nearly thirty years old, this museum continues to serve as an agent of peace and justice.

The purpose of the Fred Shuttlesworth statue was to display the tenacious leadership that was necessary to help the nation towards desegregation. The statue is a realistic portrayal of Shuttlesworth in a stride with his hand slightly reaching out. Shuttlesworth was alive during the design process of the statue and insisted that “his brow not be furrowed and that his hand not be clenched in a fist, but be open” (Spencer). These design choices help display Shuttlesworth’s uniting and kind character. Shuttlesworth wanted to display in his statue his hope that no matter one’s race or religion each person would “play out the music of justice on the keyboard of life” (Spencer). Carefully crafted by John Rhoden, each part of the statue displays an attribute of Fred Shuttlesworth that he wanted to share with the rest of the world (Eight John Rhoden Sculptures).

Rhoden, mainly a wood and bronze sculptor from Birmingham, Alabama, is well known for both civil rights sculptures and abstract sculptures. He attended the School of Painting and Sculpture at Columbia University where he earned the Rosenwald Fellowship and won first place for sculpture in Columbia (“John Rhoden”). To this day, Rhoden’s artwork is on display at various museums serving to memorialize the Civil Rights Movement time period.

Role of Statue 

The Shuttlesworth statue, displayed outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, serves as a reminder of the leadership that was needed to heal a broken nation. Fred Shuttlesworth worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to bring justice through non-violence. Although Shuttleworth died on October 5, 2011, his name and image is kept alive through numerous memorials. When tourists come to visit Birmingham, there are subtle reminders of the people that were essential to this movement. This reminder is oftentimes in the form of a statue along the sidewalk, the name of a street, or public building. Tourists may come to Birmingham by flying to the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport unaware of its namesake. However, the historical display at the airport, the Civil Rights Institute’s statue, or the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail will educate them about Shuttlesworth’s leadership and determination. Many people may walk by the Fred Shuttlesworth statue or fly into the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport without prior knowledge of his historical significance. However, these memorials evoke curiosity that may lead to research and questions. By displaying Shuttlesworth and other activists in memorials, the city of Birmingham is acknowledging its unfortunate past and using it as an anthem of hope for further uniting the city and nation. A reminder of the past and inspiration for the future is prevalent in both of these statues as it displays the determination and harmonious ambition portrayed by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Shuttlesworth once told a group of students that he “went to jail thirty to forty times, but not for fighting or stealing or drugs,” but he instead “went for a good thing, trying to make a difference.” The statue at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute or the name of the airport is not only used as a reminder of the events that took place during the Civil Rights Movement, but also as an inspiration for others that are seeking to bring change to the social system. Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King worked alongside one another to ensure that each protest was peaceful. They stood up for what was right but did so without bringing harm to others. While Shuttlesworth went to jail numerous times, he went for speaking for what he believed and not because he brought harm to others. When people look at these statues, they remember that there was a time in the United States when people were prosecuted for standing up for justice. These statues serve as a reminder that change is possible and is most effective if executed peacefully.  

The civil rights memorials displayed around Birmingham are essential for later generations learning about the history of an influential city during the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s location helps educate people of the events that took place during the movement. The statue was crafted to memorialize the significance that Shuttlesworth had on bringing an end to segregation. Fred Shuttlesworth significantly helped unite a broken nation and memorials help educate people about his lasting legacy. 

The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth
Medium: Bronze
Artist: John Rhoden
Created and Installed: 1992
Location: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute 520 16th St N, Birmingham, AL 35203 

Works Cited  

Boyd, Herb. “Courageous Civil Rights Activist, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dead at 89.” New York Amsterdam News, vol. 102, no. 41, 13 Oct. 2011, pp. 1-35. 

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 18 Sept. 2020,  

“Bonita Carter.”  

“John Rhoden.”  

Dwyer, Owen J., and Derek H. Alderman. Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2008. 

“Eight John Rhoden Sculptures Added to PAFA’s Permanent Collection: PAFA – Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.” PAFA, 2 Oct. 2019 

Gallagher, Victoria J. “Memory and Reconciliation in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 2, no. 2, 1999, pp. 303–320.  

“International Civil Rights: Walk of Fame.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of Interior,  

“KKK Bombs Alabama Home of Civil Rights Leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.” A History of Racial  

Manis, Andrew. “Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 9 Mar. 2007,  

Miller-Medzon, Karyn, et al. “4 Little Girls Died In The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing In 1963. A 5th Survived.” Here & Now, WBUR, 30 Apr. 2019, “Oral History Interview with John W. Rhoden, 1968 July 21.” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian  

Rop, Jimmy. “Fred Shuttlesworth (1922-2011).” Welcome to Blackpast, 30 July 2019,

Spencer, Thomas. “Birmingham Unity Breakfast Speakers Invoke Memories of MLK, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.”, 16 Jan. 2012,  

Sources for Further Information 

Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: the Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. University of North Carolina Press, 2000.  

McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. Simon & Schuster, 2013.  

Manis, Andrew Michael. A Fire You Can’t Put out: the Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Published November 17, 2020.


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