Civil Rights Pioneer Rev. Shuttlesworth Dies At 89

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led the battle against segregation in Birmingham, Ala. — a battle that focused the national spotlight on the violent resistance to equal rights in the South and forced change. He died Wednesday at 89.

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And we turn now to a remembrance of his fierce civil rights leader who spent decades fighting for equality. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth has died. Born in segregated Alabama in 1922, he went on to play a key role in bringing national attention to the movement's fight in Birmingham.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this look back at his life's work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth had been fighting against segregation in Birmingham for a decade before it became ground zero for the civil rights movement.

ANDREW YOUNG: He was able to take on the challenges of Birmingham, Alabama, because he had no fear of death.

KEYES: Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young recalls Shuttlesworth as a fearless crusader who had been bombed, beaten by the Ku Klux Klan, and suffered chest injuries when Birmingham officials turned fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in 1963.

YOUNG: He was not going to live in a segregated world. And either you were going to change that world or take him out of it.

KEYES: Young says it was Shuttlesworth who persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders to bring the movement to Birmingham telling them...

YOUNG: You all are going too slow to break segregation. You're going to have to break it in Birmingham.

KEYES: In a 2003 interview with NPR, Shuttlesworth attributed his determination to God. Because every time the demonstrators had to face the fire hoses and the dogs, they knew each march might be their last.

REVEREND FRED SHUTTLESWORTH: It took all we had, actually. It took God making us realize who we were, and we were standing up for it no matter what.

KEYES: The nation was riveted by televised images of the tactics being used on demonstrators, even children. And Birmingham's notoriously racist police commissioner Bull Connor was filling the jails with protestors. From the documentary "We Shall Overcome," we hear Shuttlesworth in 1963 urging his followers to keep marching.

SHUTTLESWORTH: They brought the dogs out and they tore the garments from our people.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE RESPONSE)

SHUTTLESWORTH: They turned the water hoses on. But what happened yesterday to the dogs?

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE RESPONSE)

SHUTTLESWORTH: They still have those same dogs. They still have the water hoses and the water, but they didn't use it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE RESPONSE)

SHUTTLESWORTH: We have already won a victory here in Birmingham.

CARL WESTMORELAND: We were inspired by people like him that made us do things that would have seemed beyond our ability.

KEYES: Carl Westmoreland is senior historian emeritus at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Shuttlesworth moved there in 1961 and was a pastor and activist for more than four decades. For years, he traveled back to Birmingham to lead demonstrations.

Westmoreland says Shuttlesworth's style was edgier than King's and says that's what made him such an inspiration to people all over the nation, but especially young African American men who wanted to see something more forceful than King's approach.

WESTMORELAND: In April 1963, when he confronted Bull Connor across the line, it was non violent but you were able to watch a black person, a black man with all of these children, all of these young people, visibly taking power from Pharaoh. And it was impressive.

KEYES: In a statement yesterday, President Obama called Shuttlesworth a testament to the strength of the human spirit and recalled pushing the pastor's wheelchair across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, during a commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March. One of Shuttlesworth's last public appearances was at Mr. Obama's inauguration.

But even in his later years, Shuttlesworth remained focused on civil rights telling NPR in 2005 that people need to continue the struggle.

SHUTTLESWORTH: This is what we need now out of everybody. The people need to quit just talking and do some walking again.

KEYES: The man who helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, said that he was thankful to have been part of the movement.

The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was 89 years old.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Lynn Neary.

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