By Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Three days of public goodbyes for civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth began on Saturday at the Birmingham, Alabama church where his fiery sermons once inspired others to join the fight against segregation.

Shuttlesworth, who endured beatings, survived a bombing and was described by Martin Luther King Jr. as "the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South," died on October 5 at age 89.

Spectators gathered early on Saturday outside the historic Bethel Baptist Church where Shuttlesworth served as pastor from 1953 to 1961, surviving the Christmas Day 1956 bombing of the parsonage.

An honor guard of police and firemen carried his casket from the church and loaded it onto an artillery wagon drawn by a white horse. Friends, family and dignitaries then lined up behind the wagon for a procession to the new Bethel sanctuary a block away.

"There are two things a great general deserves as he takes his last ride," said Washington Booker III, 62. "One is honor, and the other is dignity. The artillery carriage is an old symbol of both."

Booker, who said he was arrested as a teenager for marching against segregation, wore overalls for the procession to symbolize the humble working people who changed history.

Inside the new Bethel sanctuary, more than 250 people gathered for a private funeral. A public service was scheduled for Monday.

The mood was somber as the congregation listened to speakers describe the man they considered a hero in their city and beyond. Only the occasional laugh, applause or "Amen" broke through the quiet.

HOME WAS BOMBED

Julius Clark, a parishioner who had lived next door to Shuttlesworth, recalled when the pastor's home was bombed with 16 sticks of dynamite.

"I was blown out of my bed. I thought my pastor was dead. If he had not come out, there would have been blood on 29th Avenue. People came there angry," Clark said.

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.

"He was sometimes slow in doing things. Too slow for me," Shuttlesworth said of King in an interview at age 85. "He'd meditate on things a lot and agonize over them. I think if things need doing, be about them."

U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr. of Detroit, a lawyer who represented many of the protesters during the civil rights era, said: "Everyone has the impression it was one unified movement, but there were many strong-willed people with different opinions."

Shuttlesworth "was a spirit and a leader like no other," Conyers said. "He was the incredible force."

Birmingham Mayor William Bell said he would never have been able to grow up to become mayor without Shuttlesworth.

The deceased minister will lie in repose at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on Sunday. That evening, a memorial service will be held at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where a Ku Klux Klan bombing killed four little girls in 1963. The public is invited to attend both events.

Shuttlesworth will be buried on Monday following a final public service.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)