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North Carolina man who marched alongside Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama: "We've gotten complacent."

Posted at 4:57 PM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-16 16:58:29-04

In May of 1963, students from across Birmingham, Alabama marched in the streets as part of what is known as the Birmingham Movement.

At the time, slavery was long abolished, but black people, particularly in the South, continued to endure discrimination. The march began an unprecedented fight that continues to this day.

“I get very emotional because it seems like it was only yesterday,” said Albert Scruggs Jr., as he looked back at pictures from the Birmingham Movement.

Now in his 70s, Scruggs Jr. was only a teenager when the movement took place in his hometown. He was one of the hundreds of high school students who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King that day.

A famous picture that emerged from the march shows two young black men, and one young black woman, shielding themselves from a water hose being shot at them by police. Scruggs Jr. is the young man in the middle and says the memories from that experience have always remained fresh, but now, it hits a particular chord.

“Seems like I can still feel the pressure of that water hose,” said Scruggs Jr., who sees similarities between the protests then and now. "Every time I see someone on television getting hit with one of those batons, I feel it. I’ve got the whips and the bruises to show.”

Scruggs Jr. says the passion he still feels is the same passion for racial justice he did when he was a teenager, but he has found his hope wavering at times because of the lack of progress he has seen.

“They’re fighting for the same thing that we fought for in 1963,” he said. "We got complacent. We believed that change has come; however, it hasn’t.”

Scruggs Jr. says it happens in the job market when a prospective employee who is black is not afforded the same opportunities as his or her white counterpart. He says it happens at the public store when a handshake is not reciprocated. He says it also happens in schools when a black student is viewed more critically or graded more harshly by a teacher. He says they are palpable inequalities that are both subconscious and otherwise, and it is why he says these protests need to happen, but properly.

“I saw where the market house here in Fayetteville [North Carolina] was set on fire,” said Scruggs Jr. “When it gets to the place, where it turns to anarchy or looting, then we have chosen the wrong path.”

For Scruggs Jr., the path he helped forge in 1963 lead to the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights legislation in nearly 100 years at the time, as it prohibited discrimination in public places, provided free integration of schools and other public facilities and made employment discrimination illegal.

“It lets me know that the lick up on the side of my head wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” said Scruggs Jr.

It also laid the blueprint for the current movement that he says is still seeking a better future for his grandchildren's generation.

“When you get an education, or you learn something, no one can take that from you,” said Scruggs Jr. "And if what you experienced will help someone else then that in itself is a success.”