In February, I preached one of the Black History Month sermons at Zion Baptist Church, a traditional Black church in Cincinnati. After the service, Judge Cheryl Grant, a longtime congregant, thanked me for delving into the legacy of civil rights advocate Fred Shuttlesworth.

Grant had been very close with the Shuttlesworth family after they moved from Birmingham to Cincinnati in 1961, and she was working on a documentary about him with filmmaker Mark Vikram Purushotham and biographer Andrew M. Manis. Her personal testimony about Shuttlesworth and his story of redemptive action has been more than inspiring for me, and now I’d like to share his story with a wider audience.

Shuttlesworth is an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. A cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he faced and ultimately outwitted Birmingham’s infamous commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, to advance racial justice in one of America’s most obstinately segregated environments.

What’s been most interesting to me about Shuttlesworth is how he personified the mixture of Christian orthodoxy and freedom fighting that characterized the primary stream of the Black church’s social action tradition. As a pastor and leader, he called himself a biblicist and an actionist, meaning he had a devout faith in the authority of Scripture while believing right doctrine compelled the Christian into social action.

Shuttlesworth knew preaching against white supremacy wasn’t enough. The church also had to get out of their seats if they wanted social change (James 2:14–26).

His biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out, by Manis, recalls Shuttlesworth’s excitement when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision outlawed segregation in public schools. Initially, Shuttlesworth believed this was a sign that the soul of America was “essentially good” and could be shamed into delivering equality.

However, several years of letdowns thereafter convinced him that “you can’t shame segregation. … Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide; ball teams don’t strike themselves out. You gotta put ’em out,” he said. Like a conniving serpent, the elected officials, corporate executives, and social networks driving a racially unjust system wouldn’t voluntarily cede their undue power and privilege. The church would have to crush the serpent’s head through prayer and action.

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Shuttlesworth’s story is a reminder that the path to freedom for African Americans has been marked by delays, setbacks, halfhearted commitments, and broken promises. And few things capture the detoured route America has taken toward racial justice like Juneteenth, which celebrates news of emancipation reaching Black people in Texas two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation. Black Texans endured slavery for an extra quarter of a decade, then had to survive under the terrorism of Jim Crow for another century.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” On the scale of God’s plan for the whole world’s redemption, that’s true. But for us, here and now, it’s not true in any natural or inevitable sense. Those words are more artful than historical. Time is neutral, and the arc of history has had to be wrenched, hammered, and forcefully contorted to render—at best—a crooked zigzag that points somewhere in the vicinity of justice.

Advancing toward a freer society has never been a smooth, constant, upward progression for Black Americans. How are Christians to deal with this reality without falling into the bondage of despair and vengeance the Bible warns about (1 Thess. 4:13; Rom. 12:19)? Here again, Shuttlesworth’s public witness provides us with a fruitful example.

In 1957, Shuttlesworth attempted to enroll his two daughters, Pat and Ruby, in Phillips High School in Birmingham. When they pulled up to the school, a white mob surrounded them. Shuttlesworth was attacked with bats and chains, and the kicks and thrusts to the ground scraped most of the skin off his face. His wife was stabbed.

When Birmingham’s Black community heard about the beating, they were understandably furious—and eager to avenge their leader. Days later, an indignant, standing-room–only crowd awaited Shuttlesworth’s orders at a local church.

With a head bandage and an arm sling, Shuttlesworth urged the audience to respond by redoubling their advocacy efforts, not by behaving destructively. After all, he said, he was the one who’d been attacked, and if he wasn’t going to react in anger, they shouldn’t either. He responded with a grace that redeemed and reordered the tenacious fire burning within his people—a “heavenly fire.” That grace kept his work righteous, and the people’s tenacity disallowed cowardice and complacency in the face of evil.

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Shuttlesworth could’ve moved that emotional crowd to tear the city down. It would’ve been an understandable response, but also shortsighted and counterproductive. Phillips High School would eventually be integrated, not through rage and outbursts but by planning and persistent pressure.

In the last few years, particularly since the murder of George Floyd, it seems the American evangelical church has gone backward when it comes to race relations.

Justice proponents have been expelled from pulpits and jobs. Calculating political activists have made boogiemen out of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs (DEI) and critical race theory (CRT), fostering fears that too many white evangelicals have used as false justification to reject calls to humility or course correction on race issues from Black siblings in Christ. And just as Shuttlesworth discovered more than half a century ago, basic messages of racial reconciliation have proven insufficient to shame parts of the church into sincere repentance and reparation of a long and sinful history of division and injustice. Many of my peers have grown tired of spinning their wheels.

The proper response to this new detour is for Christians of all races to become more thoroughgoing biblicists and actionists. We must increase our reliance on the Bible and prayer. Undermining or deconstructing the Word of God in response to toxic evangelicalism is the ultimate cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face move. The American church’s sins regarding race are a product of its failure to follow the Bible’s mandates, not the consequence of following them too closely. And as actionists, we must apply pressure inside and outside the church to force an acknowledgement of and remedy for historical injustice.

Juneteenth is worth celebrating not because it signifies the end of suffering and injustice for Black America. While the victory it recalls was late and incomplete, it was a significant accomplishment that revealed God’s will and love for his children. Finding gratitude and joy while awaiting the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises is the definition of faith. Happy Juneteenth!

Justin Giboney is an ordained minister, attorney, and the president of the AND Campaign, a Christian civic organization. He’s the coauthor of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.