WASHINGTON (AP) _ Elbert P. Tuttle, a fabled champion of civil rights, became a federal judge in Georgia at age 57. He's 91 now, and the South is a very different place. But he's still on the bench.

''He is an amazing man, a national treasure,'' said Norman Zoller, circuit executive for the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In his 1981 book ''Unlikely Heroes,'' author Jack Bass named Tuttle as one of four federal appellate judges most responsible for racially desegregating the South by building on a landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision.

Bass described the bald, bespectacled Tuttle as ''a quiet, somewhat formal and unfailingly courteous man who practices old-fashioned virtues.''

Tuttle, now a senior judge, still carries about 70 percent of the normal caseload for an active judge on the 11th Circuit Court. He and his wife, Sara, still live in Georgia.

Tuttle once summarized his own philosophy in a speech to law students. ''The professional man is in essence one who provides service,'' he said. ''Like love, talent is only useful in its expenditure and it is never exhausted. But never confuse the performance, which is great, with the compensation - be it money, power or fame - which is trivial.''