A Fire You Can’t Put Out is the story of Fred Shuttlesworth and the Civil Rights crusade that focused in Birmingham, Alabama. I read it in honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Civil Rights movement. Also, as a native of Birmingham, I really need to know more about the namesake of our international airport. Who was Fred Shuttlesworth and how come he is so little heard of in light of other greats of the Civil Rights moment?
Manis has done a great job of interviewing, researching and understanding Shuttlesworth. I just wish his writing would have been more interesting and the story could have been just that: a great story. I know several historians who are good storytellers. Sadly, Manis is not one of them. And I know, even though he wanted to get Shuttlesworth story to the public, the way he writes is not helping.
Manis begins each chapter basically giving a glimpse at what is going to happen by the end of the chapter. Often I was ready to skip whole sections because I already knew the outcome. And when he is talking about Shuttlesworth’s past, he keeps alluding to future actions and consequences. It made me go back and read sections to figure out exactly where I was in his life.
In addition, I did not care for the long quotes from Shuttlesworth’s sermons, letters and speeches. A much stronger biography would have included those in an appendix while forwarding the story or the reactions to a particular speech or sermon. Shuttlesworth’s relationship with his wife was also alluded to yet never really fleshed out. The biography would have been stronger if their marriage was part of the story as a whole, not just tacked on as the civil rights movement was drawing to a close.
I did gain a greater insight into the Birmingham Civil Rights movement. And I also understand why Shuttlesworth has been such a controversial figure. I was also saddened that such injustice happened (and continues to happen in more subtle ways) in my hometown.
What did this book have to do with my faith? One of the strengths that Shuttlesworth brought to the movement was his insistence that the church could not be separated from what was happening to the African American people in the south and elsewhere. Turning a blind eye to injustice or trying to move more slowly was not what Shuttlesworth understood as the role of the church or the pastor. Manis does an excellent job of presenting this and the conflicts it created in the lay leadership of his churches. Churches in America today often shy away from controversial issues of justice. Sure, we tackle gambling, abortion and homosexuality. But we don’t look at issues of poverty, hunger, abuse, slavery and oppression. We want to talk about the stuff that everyone can agree on rather than the things that are actually talked about in great length throughout the bible. We also have a division between what is proper for church and what is not to be considered as what we should concern ourselves with. I am guilty of not taking a stand on many issues because they are controversial and we are probably not going to agree on many of them. But is that the right thing to do?
I recommend A Fire You Can’t Put Out but it is not an easy read. If you live or have lived in Birmingham, it is a book you should read. For those who don’t read historical biographies, at least go check out the Civil Rights Institute.