BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — As he fought segregation in his native Alabama, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth endured bombs, beatings and the constant threat of death in one of the most violent cities of the segregated South.
On Monday, Birmingham said farewell to the Baptist preacher at his funeral, honoring him as a liberator who freed the community and the country from generations of discrimination.
Shuttlesworth was “one of the founding fathers of the New America,” who put his life on the line to end segregation and racial discrimination, said Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
“Fear, real fear, smothered the air, not just throughout Birmingham but throughout the American South,” said Lewis, who met Shuttlesworth in 1961 during the Freedom Rides. “Birmingham is different today. Alabama is different today. America is different today, because this man passed our way.”
Lewis was joined by pastors and other foot soldiers from the civil rights era who remembered Shuttlesworth as an architect of the movement, a man whose courage and persistence persuaded the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Birmingham in 1963 to take part in historic protests that drew the eyes of the nation.
That visit helped paved the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for King to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The tributes described a state long synonymous with hate that was forever changed by Shuttlesworth and his fellow clergymen.
He brought international attention to the brutality of legalized discrimination in the South. And for decades after the 1963 campaign, Shuttlesworth continued to fight racial injustice in Birmingham, even after moving to Cincinnati.
Joining the crowd of mourners were members of King’s family, along with the Revs. Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, and the widow of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.
Shuttlesworth died Oct. 5 at age 89.
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley spoke frankly to the mostly black audience of mourners about his own experiences with segregation. He grew up on the other side of Jim Crow as a young white man in Shelby County and later as a student at the University of Alabama.
Before men like Shuttlesworth agitated for an end to segregation, the governor said, he never gave much thought to the culture of racial discrimination that hung over the state. He thanked Shuttlesworth for undoing what he called “the teachings of a misdirected society.”
When King took the helm of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955, Shuttlesworth was already in Birmingham trying to start a movement. But hardly anyone was paying attention.
Shuttlesworth was from a small church, and it was easy for local whites to dismiss him as a radical. Until King came to Birmingham, Shuttlesworth couldn’t get the national press to recognize his city as the embodiment of the horrors of segregation.
King became the icon of the civil rights movement, overshadowing Shuttlesworth, who was again eclipsed by King again in death.
Though he died nearly three weeks ago, Shuttlesworth’s burial was postponed because of last weekend’s dedication of the King Memorial on the National Mall, which drew many prominent civil rights figures to Washington.
But Shuttlesworth’s record of commitment ranked him among the movement’s top leaders.
He survived a Christmas 1956 bombing that destroyed his home, an assault during a 1957 protest, chest injuries when Birmingham authorities turned the hoses on demonstrators in 1963 and countless arrests.
He moved to Ohio to preach at a church in the early 1960s, but returned frequently to Alabama for protests. He came back to live in the Birmingham area after he retired a few years ago.
Friday’s funeral was the last in a series of events remembering Shuttlesworth, including a public viewing of his body at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a candlelight vigil and a memorial service Sunday with remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold that position.
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