Video: Civil rights giant Shuttlesworth dies

updated 10/5/2011 7:31:52 PM ET 2011-10-05T23:31:52

The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, who was bombed, beaten and repeatedly arrested in the fight for civil rights and hailed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for his courage and tenacity, has died. He was 89.

Relatives and hospital officials said Shuttlesworth died Wednesday at a Birmingham hospital. A former truck driver who studied religion at night, Shuttlesworth became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1953 and soon emerged as an outspoken leader in the struggle for racial equality.

"My church was a beehive," Shuttlesworth once said. "I made the movement. I made the challenge. Birmingham was the citadel of segregation, and the people wanted to march."

In his 1963 book "Why We Can't Wait," King called Shuttlesworth "one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters ... a wiry, energetic and indomitable man."

Mayor William Bell ordered city flags lowered to half-staff until after Shuttleworth's funeral. Bell, who is black, said he would not be mayor if not for leaders like Shuttlesworth.

"Dr. Shuttlesworth means so much to this city and his legacy will continue for generations," he said.

Image:
AP
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth right,  escorts Dwight Armstrong, 9, and his brother Floyd, 11, from the Graymont Elementary School in Birmingham, Ala, Sept. 9, 1963. State troopers, on order from the governor, opened the school but turned the African Americans away.

Shuttlesworth survived a 1956 bombing, an assault during a 1957 demonstration, chest injuries when Birmingham authorities turned fire hoses on demonstrators in 1963, and countless arrests.

"I went to jail 30 or 40 times, not for fighting or stealing or drugs," Shuttlesworth told grade school students in 1997. "I went to jail for a good thing, trying to make a difference."

Alabama's first black federal judge, U.W. Clemon, said Shuttlesworth flung himself at injustice well knowing he could be killed at any moment. "He was the first black man I knew who was totally unafraid of white folks," said Clemon, who retired from the bench and is now an attorney in private practice.

Shuttlesworth remained active in the movement in Alabama even after moving in 1961 to Cincinnati, where he was a pastor for most of the next 47 years. He moved back to Birmingham in February 2008 for rehabilitation after a mild stroke. That summer, the once-segregated city honored him with a four-day tribute and named its airport after him. His statue also stands outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

In November 2008, Shuttlesworth watched from a hospital bed as Sen. Barack Obama was elected the nation's first African-American president. The year before, Obama had pushed Shuttlesworth's wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during a commemoration of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march — a moment Obama recalled Wednesday.

In Washington, Obama released a statement lauding Shuttlesworth as a "testament to the strength of the human spirit" and said America owes him a "debt of gratitude" for his fight for equality.

"As one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Reverend Shuttlesworth dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans," Obama said.

In the early 1960s, Shuttlesworth had invited King back to Birmingham. Televised scenes of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on black marchers, including children, in the spring of 1963 helped the rest of the nation grasp the depth of racial animosity in the Deep South.

"He marched into the jaws of death every day in Birmingham before we got there," said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who served as an aide to King.

PhotoBlog: Pictures of Fred Shuttlesworth

Young said it was Shuttlesworth's fearlessness that persuaded King to take the struggle to Birmingham.

"We shouldn't have been strong enough to take on Birmingham ... But God had a plan that was far better than our plan," Young said. "Fred didn't invite us to come to Birmingham. He told us we had to come."

Referring to the city's notoriously racist safety commissioner, Shuttlesworth would tell followers, "We're telling ol' 'Bull' Connor right here tonight that we're on the march and we're not going to stop marching until we get our rights."

According to a May 1963 New York Times profile of Shuttlesworth, Connor responded to the word Shuttlesworth had been injured by the spray of fire hoses by saying: "I'm sorry I missed it. ... I wish they'd carried him away in a hearse."

Fellow civil rights pioneer the Rev. Joseph Lowery said Shuttlesworth was determined.

"When God made Bull Connor, one of the real negative forces in this country, He was sure to make Fred Shuttlesworth." Lowery said.

While King won international fame, Shuttlesworth was relatively little known outside Alabama. But he was a key figure in Spike Lee's 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls," about the September 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black children.

Shuttlesworth was born March 18, 1922, near Montgomery and grew up in Birmingham.

As a child, he knew he would either be a minister or a doctor and by 1943, he decided to enter the ministry. He began his theological courses at night while working as a truck driver and cement worker by day. He was licensed to preach in 1944 and ordained in 1948.

It was 1954 when King, then a pastor in Montgomery, came to Birmingham to give a speech and asked to stop by Bethel Baptist and meet Shuttlesworth.

Then in late 1955 in Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus, prompting the boycott led by King that gave new impetus to the civil rights movement.

In January 1956, King's Montgomery home was bombed while he attended a rally. Eleven months later, on Christmas night 1956, 16 sticks of dynamite were detonated outside Shuttlesworth's bedroom as he slept at the Bethel Baptist parsonage. No one was injured in either bombing, although shards of glass and wood pierced Shuttleworth's coat and hat left hanging on a hook.

The next day, Shuttlesworth led 250 people in a protest of segregation on buses in Birmingham.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The fight for the right to vote

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  1. Civil rights activists march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, on their way to Montgomery, the state capital. They are demanding voter registration rights for blacks, who are discouraged and many times threatened with violence if they try to vote, particularly in small towns in the South. (Flip Schulke / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Tear gas fills the air as state troopers, on orders from Gov. George Wallace, break up the march. March 7, 1965, becomes known as Bloody Sunday after state troopers assault the marchers with clubs and whips. A shocked nation watches the police brutality on television and demands that Washington intervene and protect voter registration rights for blacks. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Alabama state troopers beat marchers with nightsticks in Selma on March 7, 1965. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Wilson Baker, left, Selma's public safety director, and Mayor Joe Smitherman, right, tell reporters why they are banning a march to the courthouse, as protesters gather in a nearby church on March 10, 1965. Smitherman said tensions were too high to permit the eight-block march. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Voting rights activists clasp hands at a rally before starting the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery, on March 21, 1965. (Flip Schulke / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Marchers cross the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 21, 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the start of a five-day, 50-mile march to the state Capitol in Montgomery. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they set off from Selma on March 21, 1965. King is fourth from right, and Dr. Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, is third from right. They are wearing leis given to them by a Hawaiian group. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A soldier stands guard in Selma on March 21, 1965, on orders from President Johnson to protect the marchers. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965. Widely considered the most effective civil rights legislation ever in the United States, the law bans discriminatory tactics such as literacy tests aimed at preventing blacks from voting. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Civil Rights March Across Selma Bridge
    Flip Schulke / Corbis
    Above: Slideshow (9) The fight for the right to vote
  2. Image: Dr. Martin Luther King
    Hulton Archive / Getty Images file
    Slideshow (13) Martin Luther King Jr.

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