BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, often eclipsed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in life, was praised Sunday as the catalyst who brought the civil rights movement to Birmingham and launched King into immortality.
Those who knew him best urged others to continue the tireless example he set, working long after victory in the 1963 campaign to liberate the segregated Southern city he called home. Fellow preachers, foot soldiers from the movement, and members of his family told a crowd gathered at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church that for all of his heroic efforts, the fiery minister’s work remains undone.
Attorney General Eric Holder told the audience: “Without him, there would be no me.”
“We are bound by more than sorrow,” Holder said. “We are united by our shared admiration of Reverend Shuttlesworth, by our deep appreciation of his legacy, and perhaps most importantly by our collective responsibility to carry on his critical work, and to live up to the example of service that he left to us.”
A parade of clergy lined up to give Shuttlesworth his due at the memorial, which lasted nearly three hours. Five decades ago, when a little-known black Baptist preacher named Martin Luther 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. His credentials and pedigree made it 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 the segregated South.
He was just another black preacher getting beat up, said former Atlanta mayor, congressman and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, who worked alongside King and Shuttlesworth in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All three men helped establish the organization in 1957.
“They were sued together, they helped organize SCLC together,” Young said of King and Shuttlesworth. “He wanted the spotlight very much, but there wasn’t but one Martin Luther King.”
It was King who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and went on to become the icon of the civil rights movement. Shuttlesworth, who was overshadowed in life by his comrade in the movement, was again eclipsed by King in death.
Though he died nearly three weeks ago, Shuttlesworth is only now being buried on Monday. The reason for the delay: The dedication of the King Memorial on the National Mall, sending most of Shuttlesworth’s civil rights colleagues to Washington last weekend.
Had they not been there, they would have likely been in Birmingham remembering Shuttlesworth.
“His friends and Martin’s friends were the same,” Young said. “But you don’t have two memorials at the same time if you want your friends to come.” Shuttlesworth’s funeral will be Monday.
Among the events held in Shuttlesworth’s honor was a public viewing of his body at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a panel discussion at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
In tribute, many at the 16th Street Baptist Church — where four black girls were killed in a bombing before Sunday services on September 15, 1963 — recalled Shuttlesworth’s courage but also called on those left to mourn him to be courageous. Holder said Shuttlesworth was a warrior for justice and advocate for peace who has left behind a legacy for the country to follow.
The attorney general used the occasion to point out Alabama’s strict new immigration, considered the toughest crackdown in the nation. He said too many in Alabama “are willing to turn their backs on our immigrant past” and he would not let that happen. The Obama administration is among the parties suing the state to block the law.
The Rev. Tommie Lewis urged Holder to remember Alabama in his duties.
“We got some serious issues down here,” Lewis said, looking at the attorney general. “Our issues are not going to be handled between these mountains, down in this valley.”
There was also candlelight vigil for Shuttlesworth across the street in Kelly Ingram Park, made famous the same year when news footage of policemen and firemen unleashing dogs and blasting water hoses on defenseless civil rights marchers was broadcast to a shocked international audience.
Long before the television cameras arrived, Shuttlesworth was there, organizing many such nonviolent protests.
Shuttlesworth 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 pastor a church in the early 1960s, but returned frequently to Alabama for key protests. He came back to live in the Birmingham area after he retired a few years ago.
“He was able to see how the civil rights struggle kept reinventing itself in different forms,” said Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.”
“He was always there to make it clear that this was a continuous struggle.”
McWhorter said she never got the sense that Shuttlesworth was bitter about King overpowering the narrative of the movement, and that he never badmouthed King to her.
“He had a huge ego … but he never said anything like, ‘Oh, I should’ve been the leader of the movement,’” she said. “He kind of recognized that he couldn’t have done what King did. But he was just such a key ingredient that it couldn’t have happened without him, either.”
Quoting from his book, “My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South,” former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, a Birmingham native, said at Sunday’s panel: “King’s name would’ve never touched immortality had it not been for Birmingham.”
In his 1963 book “Why We Can’t Wait,” King himself called Shuttlesworth “one of the nation’s most courageous freedom fighters.”
After Shuttlesworth’s death on Oct. 5 — the same week the Rev. Joseph Lowery turned 89 and the Rev. Jesse Jackson turned 70 — Alabama lowered its state flags to half-mast.
“I really do feel like he has sort of gotten his due more and more over the last number of years,” McWhorter said. “Partly because he’s outlasted everybody, with distinction and class.”
Young agreed that Shuttlesworth ultimately received his due, and is recognized as one of the true heroes of the movement. Besides, he pointed out, attention is no substitute for longevity.
“Yes, Martin overshadowed him,” Young said of Shuttlesworth. “But he got to live to 89. Martin didn’t make it to 40.”