BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — 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 Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham. 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.”
Birmingham 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.
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 a privately practicing attorney.
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.
And 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.
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.
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.
In 1957, he was beaten by a mob when he tried to enroll two of his children in an all-White school in Birmingham.
In Cincinnati, Shuttlesworth left Revelation Baptist Church and became pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church in 1966.
In 2004, he was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for about three months. The troubled organization’s board had suspended Shuttlesworth without giving a reason after he tried to fire a longtime official. He resigned, saying board members tried to micromanage the organization.
He was 84 when he retired as the pastor of Greater New Light in 2006. “The best thing we can do is be a servant of God,” he said in his final sermon. “It does good to stand up and serve others.”
Associated Press writers Errin Haines in Atlanta, Kendal Weaver in Montgomery, Ala., and Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.