Fred L. Shuttlesworth, courageous civil rights fighter, dies at 89

October 5, 2011

The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, 89, one of the bravest and most dynamic leaders of the civil rights movement, who survived bombings, beatings and dozens of arrests in his efforts to end segregation in Birmingham, Ala., and throughout the South, died Oct. 5 at a Birmingham hospital.

His daughter Carolyn Shuttlesworth said the cause of death was not known. Rev. Shuttlesworth had been in poor health since having a stroke four years ago.

Rev. Shuttlesworth, a Baptist minister and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helped establish nonviolent resistance as a central tenet of the civil rights movement, often at great personal risk.

In the early 1960s, he and other protesters were attacked with truncheons, fire hoses and dogs unleashed by Birmingham’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor. When the images of violence were shown on television and newspaper front pages, the horrors of segregation could no longer be ignored by the rest of the nation.

Rev. Shuttlesworth is often ranked in the highest tier of the nation’s civil rights leaders, alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, but few suffered more on the front lines. He was, King once said, “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.”

“I think God created Fred Shuttlesworth to take on people like Bull Connor,” the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped found the SCLC with King and Rev. Shuttlesworth, said Wednesday. “He was one of the most courageous men that I have ever known. I don’t know of anyone else that could have led the movement in Birmingham.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth faced down violence from police and racist mobs soon after he began preaching in Birmingham in 1953. In December 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of buses in Montgomery, Ala., was illegal, he announced that he would challenge other discriminatory laws in court.

On Christmas Day that year, 15 sticks of dynamite exploded beneath his bedroom window. The floor was blown out from under him, but he received only a bump on the head.

“I believe I was almost at death’s door at least 20 times,” he told the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2001. “But when the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind. I knew God was with me like he was with Daniel in the lions’ den. The black people of Birmingham knew that God had saved me to lead the fight.”

In 1957, when Rev. Shuttlesworth tried to enroll his children in a white school, he was beaten unconscious with chains, baseball bats and brass knuckles by a Ku Klux Klan mob. His wife was stabbed in the hip.

“He was a tested warrior,” civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson said Wednesday in an interview. “He was bombed. He was beaten. He was the soul of the Birmingham movement.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth’s biographer, Andrew Manis, told the Birmingham News in 1999: “There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth was arrested more than 30 times and, Manis said, was involved in “more cases in which he was either a defendant or a plaintiff that reached the Supreme Court than any other person in American history.”

Harassment of Rev. Shuttlesworth knew no limits. The Alabama Supreme Court refused to consider one of his legal appeals because it was submitted on paper of the wrong size. In 1960, nine police officers boarded a bus and arrested his three teenage children for refusing to sit in the back.

“We’re tired of waiting,” Rev. Shuttlesworth said at a 1963 rally. “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.”

In May 1963, Rev. Shuttlesworth was hospitalized after being struck by a blast from a high-pressure fire hose in Birmingham.

“I waited a week to see Shuttlesworth get hit with a hose,” Connor said. “I’m sorry I missed it.”

Told that Rev. Shuttlesworth had been taken away in an ambulance, Connor replied, “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth appeared at almost every major milepost of the civil rights movement, from the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 to the desegregation of beaches at St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964.

He spoke at a rally in Selma, Ala., in February 1965, one month before he and King and other civil rights leaders marched for voting rights across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 7, 1965 — a day that would come to be known as Bloody Sunday — the peaceful marchers were attacked by state troopers with clubs and tear gas. Revulsion toward the racist violence spread throughout the country.

“He was a testament to the strength of the human spirit,” President Obama said in a statement. “I will never forget having the opportunity several years ago to push Reverend Shuttlesworth in his wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — a symbol of the sacrifices that he and so many others made in the name of equality.”

After four African American girls died in a bombing at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, Rev. Shuttlesworth spoke at their funerals. Years later, he lamented that even the killing of innocent children could not bring an end to racial injustice.

He was born Freddie Lee Robinson in Mount Meigs, Ala., on March 18, 1922, and grew up in Birmingham. He took the name of his stepfather, William N. Shuttlesworth.

Rev. Shuttlesworth drove a truck and was a cement worker in his youth and was arrested in the early 1940s for operating an illegal moonshine still.

He studied for the ministry at Selma University and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Alabama State University in 1951. He preached at rural Baptist churches near Selma before becoming pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church in 1953.

Rev. Shuttlesworth had been active in the NAACP until it was outlawed in Alabama in 1956. With King, Abernathy and several other ministers, Rev. Shuttlesworth helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, dedicated to ending segregation through nonviolent means.

He had met King in 1954, but the two were not particularly close: King was polished and had a doctorate from Boston University; Rev. Shuttlesworth was something of a firebrand whose preaching style derived from the unvarnished churches of the rural South.

When King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Rev. Shuttlesworth was upset that he was not invited to the ceremony in Oslo.

“If I had not invited the SCLC and King to Birmingham,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “the SCLC would not have ever become a vibrant force, and King would not have a holiday in his honor today.”

In 1961, Rev. Shuttlesworth became pastor of a Baptist church in Cincinnati, although he continued his civil rights work in Birmingham for years afterward. He briefly served as interim director of the SCLC in 2004 but soon resigned because of internal disputes.

After a stroke in 2007, Rev. Shuttlesworth moved back to Birmingham, where the airport has been named in his honor.

He and his first wife, Ruby Keeler Shuttlesworth, divorced in 1970. She died a year later.

Survivors include his wife of four years, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth of Birmingham; four children from his first marriage, Patricia Massengill, Ruby Bester and Fred L. Shuttlesworth Jr., all of Cincinnati, and Carolyn Shuttlesworth of Rockville; five sisters; 11 grandchildren; 19 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter.

“There’s a generation of people who don’t know who he is, but they ought to,” Jackson said of Rev. Shuttlesworth in 2008. “If you don’t know, learn. We know about George Washington because it’s taught. We need to teach about Fred Shuttlesworth.’’

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.