The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) presented its highest honor, the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, to EJI director Bryan Stevenson during its twentieth anniversary celebration this weekend. The annual award recognizes individuals for their service to civil and human rights causes around the world.
“We are pleased to pay tribute to Fred L. Shuttlesworth by honoring Bryan Stevenson, one of the nation's leading legal civil and human rights advocates,” stated BCRI President and CEO Dr. Lawrence J. Pijeaux, Jr. “Bryan has brought the systemic discrimination against racial minorities to public attention and, through skilled, creative advocacy, he has been an effective voice for those routinely denied equal treatment by the justice system.”
Established in 2002, the Annual Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award serves as a tribute to the leadership and courage of the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth throughout the course of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was known for his fiery advocacy against segregation. He fearlessly stood up to infamous Birmingham police commissioner T. Eugene (Bull) Connor, survived beatings and bombings by segregationists, and was arrested some 40 times for participating in peaceful civil rights demonstrations.
After the marches in Birmingham and Selma that Rev. Shuttlesworth helped to coordinate led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he continued to work tirelessly for equality in Alabama and Ohio, where he became the pastor of a church.
Rev. Shuttlesworth was the inaugural recipient of the award. Other recipients include Actor/Activist Danny Glover, Congressman John Lewis, and Attorney Fred Gray.
"I am really honored to be getting an award in Reverend Shuttlesworth's name," Bryan Stevenson told AL.com. "I'm not confused by the fact that, but for Brown vs. Board of Education, but for lawyers coming into my community and demanding the public schools be open to me, but for people creating opportunities for me to get into college, I wouldn't be doing what I do."
Stevenson is leading a new initiative at EJI addressing race and poverty in America, which documents and explores the legacy of racial bias in the United States and its continuing impact on contemporary policies and practices.
"We are very comfortable now retelling the story of civil rights struggle through the lens of extremists," Stevenson explained. "We like to focus on the bombers, the Klan members, the extremists who engaged in the most violent acts. They were violent and vile, but they were not the most destructive acts. The most destructive acts were being committed by the governor, the legislature, the city council. Those ordinances, those statutes were systematic, structural, conceived and implemented. And in many ways that was a bigger problem than the random acts of violence."
EJI is working to engage Americans in talking more comprehensivly about what was happening in 1963, when Rev. Shuttlesworth organized the Children's March in Birmingham, including "the anguish and the indifference of so many people in the community and what that indifference cost us, and what we did after that."
"We have an opportunity now," Stevenson said, "because it has been 50 years, to really begin reevaluating what these experiences represent, and hopefully reevaluating them in a more honest and hopeful way than we have historically."