BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, once described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South,” was laid to rest on Monday in Birmingham as three days of public mourning came to an end.
Shuttlesworth, who began hammering away at Birmingham’s hard shell of segregation in the early 1950s and survived beatings and a bombing of his home, died on October 5 at age 89.
After a public ceremony at a Birmingham chapel attended by around 1,500 people, Shuttlesworth’s white casket was whisked by a flower-bedecked white hearse to the historic Oak Hill Cemetery for a private burial.
“Fred Shuttlesworth was a hell raiser. He raised a cloud of hell off the City of Birmingham,” the Rev. Andrew Young, a civil rights leader from Georgia who also served as an ambassador under President Jimmy Carter, told mourners.
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.
Shuttlesworth 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.
Less widely known than King, with whom he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Shuttlesworth often prodded his more contemplative counterpart to take action.
“Freddie was a bad dude. Nobody messed with Fred. Martin didn’t mess with Fred,” said Rev. Joseph Lowery, also a civil rights leader.
Yet Shuttlesworth, who served as pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church and several other churches in Birmingham, never allowed anger to consume him. U.S. Representative John Lewis described him asking his children to forgive even after being beaten.
“He never lost faith in the power of love to overcome hate,” Lewis said.
Several speakers encouraged the participants to continue Shuttlesworth’s work, with one citing as an example of continuing discrimination an Alabama law targeting illegal immigration that is seen as the toughest in the nation.
“It looks like Jim Crow to me,” Raphael Warnock, pastor of King’s former church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, said of the law, which authorizes police to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.
Part of the law, passed by state lawmakers who say the federal government has not done enough to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, has been blocked by the courts.
Juanita Abernathy, the widow of fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, said more civil rights work needed to be done: “Some of the segregation we thought we had killed is raising its ugly head just because we have a black president in the White House.”
Honor guards from the Birmingham Police and Fire Departments, the same forces used against Shuttlesworth during segregation, carried the coffin into the chapel for Monday’s public service and stood guard beside it.
Shuttlesworth’s biographer, Taylor Branch, told of a time when the fire chief entered his church to shut it down as a fire hazard.
”He told him, ‘The kind of fire we have in here, you can’t put out with axes and hoses,’ Branch said.
Shuttlesworth had earlier laid in state at his former church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to allow old friends and admirers to bid him goodbye.
Shuttlesworth’s widow, Sephira, had taken a fall during Sunday’s program and was brought by ambulance. Arriving late, she kissed her husband, wearing white vestments with silver embroidery as he would have worn many times in the pulpit, and took her place in the front row.
More than 200 Shuttlesworth family members also attended the more than 6-hour public service, the women wearing crisp white suits. Several older ladies wore hats with gauze, lace, feathers and bows.
The casket was whisked away for burial as folk singer Peter Yarrow sang, “How many miles must a man walk down, before they call him a man?” The congregation joined in the chorus of “Blowing in the Wind.”
Editing by Cynthia Johnston