Birmingham, Ala. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, often eclipsed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in life, was praised Sunday as the catalyst who brought the civil rights movement to Birmingham and launched King into immortality.
Those who knew him best urged others to continue the tireless example he set, working long after victory in the 1963 campaign to liberate the segregated Southern city he called home. Fellow preachers, foot soldiers from the movement, and members of his family told a crowd gathered at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church that for all of his heroic efforts, the fiery minister’s work remains undone.
Attorney General Eric Holder told the audience: “Without him, there would be no me.”
“We are bound by more than sorrow,” Holder said. “We are united by our shared admiration of Reverend Shuttlesworth, by our deep appreciation of his legacy, and perhaps most importantly by our collective responsibility to carry on his critical work, and to live up to the example of service that he left to us.”
A parade of clergy lined up to give Shuttlesworth his due at the memorial, which lasted nearly three hours. Five decades ago, when a little-known black Baptist preacher named Martin Luther 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. His credentials and pedigree made it 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 the segregated South.
He was just another black preacher getting beat up, said former Atlanta mayor, congressman and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, who worked alongside King and Shuttlesworth in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All three men helped establish the organization in 1957.
“They were sued together, they helped organize SCLC together,” Young said of King and Shuttlesworth. “He wanted the spotlight very much, but there wasn’t but one Martin Luther King.”
It was King who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and went on to become the icon of the civil rights movement. Shuttlesworth, who was overshadowed in life by his comrade in the movement, was again eclipsed by King in death.
Though he died nearly three weeks ago, Shuttlesworth is only now being buried today. The reason for the delay: The dedication of the King Memorial on the National Mall, sending most of Shuttlesworth’s civil rights colleagues to Washington last weekend.
Had they not been there, they would have likely been in Birmingham remembering Shuttlesworth. His funeral will be today.