Birmingham says farewell to Fred Shuttlesworth

AP News
Posted: Oct 24, 2011 7:29 PM
Birmingham says farewell to Fred Shuttlesworth

As he fought discrimination in his native Alabama, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth endured bombs, beatings and the constant threat of death _ the price of seeking change in one of the most violent cities of the segregated South.

On Monday, Birmingham said farewell to the fiery Baptist preacher, honoring him at his funeral as a liberator who helped free the community and the country.

Shuttlesworth was "one of the founding fathers of the new America," who put his life on the line in the 1950s and 1960s 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," Lewis said from podium just a few feet above Shuttlesworth's open casket. The two met 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.

In their tributes, speakers described a state long synonymous with hate that was forever changed by Shuttlesworth and his fellow clergymen.

Shuttlesworth brought international attention to the brutality of discrimination in the South. And for decades after the 1963 campaign, he continued to fight racial injustice in Birmingham, even after moving to Cincinnati.

Former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young said Shuttlesworth "raised the cloud of hell off the city."

Joining the crowd of mourners at Faith Chapel Christian Center were members of King's family, along with the Revs. Joseph Lowery and Jesse Jackson, and the widow of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. Shuttlesworth died Oct. 5 at age 89.

His wife was able to attend the service, even after falling the night before and staying overnight in a hospital. The crowd at the funeral stood and applauded as Sephira Shuttlesworth was wheeled to her husband's casket, where she stood to view his body before leaning down to kiss him.

Her spokeswoman, Malena Cunningham, said she was sore after falling at a panel discussion Sunday night, but she wasn't going to let it "stop her from giving a proper farewell to her husband."

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley spoke frankly to the mostly black 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 discrimination that hung over the state.

He thanked Shuttlesworth for undoing "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 throughout the struggle. Shuttlesworth was 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 fire hoses on demonstrators in 1963 and countless arrests.

He moved to Ohio in the early 1960s but returned frequently to Alabama for protests. He came back to live in the Birmingham area after retiring a few years ago.

Friday's funeral was the last in a series of events remembering Shuttlesworth, including a memorial service Sunday with remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold that position.


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