Using an operating system of unadorned bodily witness, backed by a headlong courage that often tested the grace of his God, Mr. Shuttlesworth was the key architect of the civil rights revolution’s turning-point victory in Birmingham, the mass marches of 1963. Their internationally infamous climax, the showdown between the movement’s child demonstrators and the city of Birmingham’s fire hoses and police dogs, gave President John F. Kennedy the moral authority he needed to introduce legislation to abolish legal segregation, passed after his death as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

True, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the reluctant leader whom Mr. Shuttlesworth virtually goaded into joining him in Birmingham, got the credit — and the Nobel Peace Prize — for their accomplishment. But that’s partly because Mr. Shuttlesworth was the un-King, the product not of polished Atlanta but of rough, heavy-industrial Birmingham. As the public face of the movement, King was its ambassador to the white world, while Mr. Shuttlesworth was the man in the trenches. …

A few years ago, after Mr. Shuttlesworth had survived a house fire, I teased him about his continuing record of close calls, saying that even though the segregationists hadn’t done him in, somebody was going to get him one way or the other. “Yeah, and when they do,” he replied, “God’s going to say, ‘They got a man.’ ”

Diane McWhorter, who wrote the definitive book about my hometown.