'Foot soldiers' of Birmingham to BLM: 'Keep on keeping on'

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FILE - Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lead a column of demonstrators as they attempt to march on Birmingham, Ala., city hall April 12, 1963. Police intercepted the group short of their goal. Rev. Jonathan McPherson, shown in a coat and tie two people behind King, in 2021 is urging protesters against racial injustice to "keep on keeping on." (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Charles Avery had barely started marching when police arrested him, forced him into a police vehicle and took him to jail for participating in landmark civil rights protests that helped change the nation in 1963. He spent days in custody and then lived decades haunted by a conviction for the most innocuous of offenses — parading without a permit — that he saw as noble yet others questioned with suspicion.

“I had to explain what it was, that it was from Birmingham," said Avery, 76. "It always came up.”

Yet Avery said he'd do it again all these years later, and he has a message for the thousands of demonstrators who have been arrested nationwide during the months-long uprising over police violence and racism: Keep going. A lifelong mark in the name of justice is worth the trouble.

Veterans of the campaign that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead to eradicate racial segregation in Birmingham nearly 60 years ago remain firmly in the corner of racial justice now that they're old and gray, with some joining in protests that followed George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police last year and others watching at home on TV.

Nonviolence was King's way, and some are put off by scenes of burning buildings and rioting that accompanied some protests, including one in Birmingham. But foot soldiers who first advocated for the idea that Black lives matter decades ago now support the movement of the same name; The Associated Press interviewed some of them ahead of an online commemoration of the ‘63 Children’s Crusade protests held Friday that focused on challenges facing young people today.

The Rev. Jonathan McPherson was walking just a few feet behind King when both were arrested in downtown Birmingham. He spent a night in jail and sees his conviction for illegal parading as a badge of honor.

“It was worth it, every bit of it. I’ve even told my wife I can’t move like I used to but I’ll be glad to join those young people today in these protests that we have," said McPherson, 87. He once served as a bodyguard for King and other movement leaders in Birmingham, which came to be known as “Bombingham” for the frequency of attacks on Black churches, homes and leaders.

Arrested the same day as McPherson, Myrna Jackson recently had a stroke and spends most of her time at home. But she stays up to date on the Black Lives Matter movement and mourns every time someone else dies at the hands of law enforcement.