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Fred Shuttlesworth dies at 89; hard-charging civil rights figure

Fred Shuttlesworth was the last of the civil rights movement's 'Big Three.' With the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.

October 06, 2011|Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

In 1957, he took two of his daughters to enroll in an all-white high school in Birmingham. More than a dozen men with chains, brass knuckles and baseball bats were waiting for him when he drove up. One of the men stabbed his wife, Ruby, in the hip. Shuttlesworth was beaten until he passed out, but he regained consciousness and managed to clamber back into the car, calmly telling the driver not to break any traffic laws as they rushed away.

That year he joined with King and Abernathy to launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became the guiding force of the movement.

Shuttlesworth constantly prodded King to take more aggressive action. "King's attention was pulled in a lot of different directions," McWhorter said. "His public appearances were crucial to raising money for the movement. Shuttlesworth was always trying to bring him back into the work and get him focused on the real campaign."

In 1963 their collaboration culminated in massive demonstrations in Birmingham to pressure downtown department stores to desegregate. Later that year when President Kennedy introduced to Congress the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told King and Shuttlesworth, "But for Birmingham, we would not be here today."

Shuttlesworth often said that he "tried to get killed in Birmingham" to draw attention to the injustices. His rough-edged approach alienated many of the more bourgeois elements of the movement, but he made no apologies. God, he said after the explosion that nearly took his life, "made me bomb-proof" and blew him into history.

His first wife died in 1971. He is survived by his second wife, Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth, five children, 14 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren, a great-great grandchild, five sisters and two brothers.

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