ATLANTA (WAOK/AJC)-The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, co-founder and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, died Wednesday morning in Birmingham. He was 89.
Tributes to the life of the civil rights leader immediately started coming in from all over the country.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama called the Rev. Shuttlesworth “a testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
“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,” said the president, who several years ago pushed the Rev. Shuttlesworth’s wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches.
“He was a dedicated man and one of the most courageous I have ever known,” said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his 1963 book “Why We Can’t Wait,” called the Rev. Shuttlesworth “one of the nation’s most courageous freedom fighters … a wiry, energetic and indomitable man.”
Rep. John Lewis said, “The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is the last of a kind. He was a fearless, determined, courageous leader for civil rights and social justice. When others did not have the courage to stand up, speak up and speak out, Fred Shuttlesworth put all he had on the line to end segregation in Birmingham and the state of Alabama. He was beaten with chains, his church was bombed, and he lived under constant threat of physical violence and murder.
“He was an inspiring force. He was one of the bravest members of the Civil Rights Movement. He inspired countless people in the most resistant, dangerous areas of the South, and those around the nation, to stand up against injustice. All of us, each and every American as well as all those around the world who have used the Civil Rights movement as a template for their own struggles for change, owe Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth a heavy debt of gratitude for his willingness to give all he had to help build a more fair, more just society.”
“He marched into the jaws of death every day in Birmingham before we got there,” former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young told the Associated Press. “We shouldn’t have been strong enough to take on Birmingham, but God had a plan that was far better than our plan. Fred didn’t invite us to come to Birmingham. He told us we had to come.”
In the 1950s, the Rev. Shuttlesworth was pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church. On Christmas Day 1956, his Birmingham home was bombed. The next day, he led 250 people in a protest of segregation on buses in Birmingham.
A year later, when he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school, members of the Ku Klux Klan beat him with chains.
In 1957, the Rev. Shuttlesworth was one of five preachers who formed the SCLC, which would serve as the organizational base for the Rev. King’s civil rights efforts.
The Rev. Shuttlesworth was born March 18, 1922, in Mount Meigs, Ala. He was actually born Freddie Lee Robinson, but later took the last name Shuttlesworth from his stepfather. His family survived by sharecropping and selling moonshine, which led to one of his first run-ins with the law. In 1940, he was sentenced to two years probation for moonshining.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized.
Survivors include his wife, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth; four daughters, Patricia Massengill, Ruby Bester, Carolyn Shuttlesworth and Maria Murdock; a son, Fred Shuttlesworth Jr.; a stepdaughter, Audrey Wilson; five sisters, Betty Williams, Truzella Brazil, Ernestine Grimes, Iwilder Reed and Eula Mitchell; 14 grandchildren; 20 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.
Here is more on the life and legacy of Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth