Who was James Armstrong? That's a very important question, I recently learned. Now, I know, the theme for Black History Month this year revolves around President Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Rev. Martin Luther King and the March on Washington in 1963. But then there is "the Barber of Birmingham."
Even though I grew up in Birmingham, Ala. and consider myself knowledgeable about the Civil Rights Movement, after a recent screening at the U.S. Agency for International Development of an Oscar-nominated short film, I am on a self-appointed mission to tell the world about James Armstrong, a barber who was a flag-bearer, foot soldier and unsung hero of the war against injustice and discrimination. The film celebrates his participation, just before his passing at the age of 86, in President Obama’s election in 2008.
A true civil rights veteran, James Armstrong once said that the World War II battles he fought in overseas as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army prepared him for the fight he would return to here in the United States.
And so after opening his Birmingham barbershop in the early 1950's, he became dedicated to the fight for civil rights.
With sayings around the barbershop like "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance" and "If you don't vote, don't talk politics in here", and photographs from the movement on the walls, including one of Dr. King sitting right there in his barber's chair, he used his shop as his very own bully pulpit, speaking out and acting out daily.
As sole owner of the barbershop, there was no one to threaten to fire him or foreclose on his home the way so many African Americans of that time were being intimidated and he took full advantage of that freedom.
In addition to regularly participating in marches around Birmingham, some of which landed him in jail, Armstrong also took his fight to the courts. He won a class action lawsuit that led to his two sons’ enrollment as the first Black students at Birmingham's Graymont Elementary School in 1963. Mr. Armstrong also boldly carried the American flag at the front of the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the day that we know as "Bloody Sunday." Beaten right along with the other marchers, Armstrong, it was said, never let that flag hit the ground. Although Mr. Armstrong passed away in 2009, his legacy lives on through a replica of his barbershop at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute museum and through the tremendous work of Robin Fryday, producer/director of "Barber of Birmingham" and Shirley Gavin Floyd, Birmingham civil rights historian who researched the film.
It's important for me to share this story with you here because there are so many foot soldiers just like Mr. Armstrong whose stories are not widely known. But, we need to know, and our children need to know, just whose shoulders we stand on. And, we have to see that President Lincoln's and Dr. King's shoulders were simply not broad enough to carry the full weight of oppression that our people suffered for so long. So, we owe it to those everyday foot soldiers to acknowledge the sacrifices they made and the beatings they took that have allowed us to accomplish things they knew they would never be able to.
Quoting Deuteronomy 6:11, Shirley Gavin Floyd closed an email message to me in the days following the screening by saying "We are drinking from wells we did not dig, eating from vineyards that we did not plant, and living in houses we did not build." His underlying meaning was so very correct and it's time that we recognize that we all benefit from those who came before us. Thankfully, there's plenty of time to do it, not just during Black History Month, but throughout the year. So, let's honor these everyday foot soldiers. It's about time!
Shirley A. Jones is president of Council of Blacks in Government, Region XI.