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Civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth dies at 89

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Wed October 5, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was a leader in the fight against segregation
  • Martin Luther King Jr. called him "most courageous civil rights fighter in the South"
  • President Clinton gave him a Citizens Medal in 2001 for his leadership
  • He was beaten with chains and injured by water from a fire hose; his home was firebombed

(CNN) -- The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who helped lead the civil rights movement, has died, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute said Wednesday. He was 89.

Shuttlesworth is among the iconic figures honored in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. King once called Shuttlesworth "the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South."

President Barack Obama issued a statement honoring Shuttleworth, saying he "dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans. He was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. And today we stand on his shoulders, and the shoulders of all those who marched and sat and lifted their voices to help perfect our union. ...

"America owes Reverend Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Sephira, and their family, friends and loved ones."

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregated busing in Montgomery, Alabama, Shuttlesworth rallied the membership of a group he established in May 1956 -- the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights -- to challenge the practice of segregated busing in Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth also helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with King and other civil rights leaders.

Shuttlesworth's efforts weren't without a price: his home was bombed on Christmas Day in 1956, but he and his family were not injured.

He was, however, hurt in 1957 when he was beaten with chains and whips as he sought to integrate an all-white public school.

That same year, Shuttlesworth helped King organize the SCLC, serving as the organization's first secretary from 1958 to 1970. He later served briefly as its president in 2004.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Shuttlesworth a Presidential Citizens Medal -- the nation's second-highest civilian award -- for his leadership in the "non-violent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, leading efforts to integrate Birmingham, Alabama's schools, buses and recreational facilities" and helping found the SCLC.

Shuttlesworth also protested segregated lunch counters and helped lead sit-ins at the eateries in 1960.

He participated in organizing the Freedom Rides against segregated interstate buses in the South when he joined forces with the Congress On Racial Equality.

In 1963, he was injured again when a fire hose was turned on him during a protest against segregation in Birmingham. The blast of water, directed against demonstrators by order of Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, slammed Shuttlesworth against a wall. He was hospitalized but recovered.

He was also a principal in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, which he helped organize.

In the early 1960s, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he fought homelessness and continued the movement against racism. There, he founded and served as pastor of the Greater New Light Baptist Church from 1966 to 2006.

In the 1980s, he established the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation in Cincinnati, which provided grants to help low-income families buy homes.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission has placed Shuttlesworth in its Hall of Fame.

CNN's Tenisha Bell contributed to this report.

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