BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was once described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South,” died in Birmingham, Alabama, on Wednesday at age 89.
Shuttlesworth, who had been in declining health, passed away at the Princeton Baptist Medical Center, hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Dodd told Reuters.
A major leader in the civil rights movement, Shuttlesworth was beaten, bombed and injured by fire hoses for his public stances against segregation in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s.
President Barack Obama said he was saddened to learn of Shuttlesworth’s death, describing him as a “testament to the strength of the human spirit” who spent his life advancing the cause of justice for all Americans.
“And today we stand on his shoulders, and the shoulders of all those who marched and sat and lifted their voices to help perfect our union,” Obama said in a statement.
Though Shuttlesworth and King worked closely together and both helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Shuttlesworth often bristled against his more contemplative counterpart.
“He was sometimes slow in doing things. Too slow for me,” Shuttlesworth said in an interview at age 85. “He’d meditate on things a lot and agonize over them. I think if things need doing, be about them.”
Shuttlesworth, who served as pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church and several other churches in Birmingham, began hammering away at that city’s hard shell of segregation in the early 1950s.
Alabama’s Republican Governor Robert Bentley ordered flags in state buildings flown at half staff, saying Shuttlesworth had been instrumental in Birmingham integration efforts.
Shuttlesworth formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in May 1956 and urged its members to take a stand against segregated buses. He refused to relent even after his home was bombed on Christmas Day in 1956. He and his family escaped unharmed.
“When he came out covered in rubble, we knew he was anointed to lead the movement,” the late Rev. Abraham Woods, a fellow activist, said in a 2007 interview.
Warned by a Klansman police officer to vacate the city, Shuttlesworth said he shot back: “I wasn’t saved to run.”
The minister later was beaten by a mob with baseball bats, chains and brass knuckles as he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school, and was hospitalized after being sprayed by fire hoses during a demonstration against segregation.
Shuttlesworth once told Reuters he had expected to die by age 40 for his civil rights efforts. He had vowed “to kill segregation or be killed by it.”
For his own safety, he left Alabama in 1961 to lead a church in Cincinnati, Ohio. But he still marshaled forces for change in the South, including helping organize the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
The march ended in a bloody police attack, sparking civil rights protests.
During a commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” in March 2007, then-presidential candidate Obama pushed Shuttlesworth in his wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the attack occurred.
“We have truly lost a great soldier, a warrior for civil rights,” Jefferson County Commission President Pro Tem Sandra Little Brown said. “I am serving on the back of the changes that he was a part of for people of color.”
Additional reporting by Peggy Gargis and Melinda Dickinson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston