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.”
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.”
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 – 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.