By Erin Stock -- The Birmingham News
November 19, 2009
Birmingham barber James Armstrong, a civil rights foot soldier who
carried the American flag at the head of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery
voting rights march, died Wednesday. He was 86.
Mr. Armstrong died of heart failure, said Dwight Armstrong, one of
his four children.
On Wednesday the barbershop he ran for more than 50 years was locked,
with a "for sale" sign on the door. But signs of its life -- decades
of it -- were apparent from the sidewalk. On the door was a faded
message: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." And
next to that: "If you don't vote, don't talk politics in here."
The messages seem fitting for Mr. Armstrong, who initiated a
class-action lawsuit so his children could attend a Birmingham school
previously reserved for whites. The suit resulted in desegregation of
the city's schools.
The Army veteran also famously carried the American flag across the
Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, a day that is credited with
ensuring passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
When authorities turned on marchers that day, Mr. Armstrong dropped
to his knees, but "he never did let that flag hit the ground," said
Shirley Gavin Floyd, the business manager for the Civil Rights
Activist Committee in Birmingham who has heard firsthand accounts of
The flag was the first thing visitors would see at Mr. Armstrong's
College Hills home. He carried it every year during anniversary
marches in Selma, and on it he wrote the dates he made the journey,
"I'll keep coming back as long as I can walk," Mr. Armstrong said in
an interview at age 77. "One day, I may even come in a wheelchair."
'One of the best'
Mr. Armstrong's health had been spotty in the past couple of years,
but he opened his barbershop when he could. His clients over the
years included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man Mr. Armstrong
considered a teacher and role model. They also included Smithfield
residents such as Larry Thomas, who would sit in Mr. Armstrong's
barber chair as a child.
"One of the best people you ever wanted to know," said Thomas, 56.
Mr. Armstrong was born in 1923 in Dallas County to farmers with no
more than a sixth-grade education, according to an oral history he
gave in 1995. After high school, he was drafted into the Army at age
18 and spent more than two years in Europe for World War II. The
battle overseas prepared him for another fight.
"He came back to Alabama and he knew God had a plan for him," said
Dwight Armstrong, who remembers his father as a committed and disciplined man.
Because he ran his own business, Mr. Armstrong could conduct sit-ins
and other demonstrations without fear of retribution from an
employer, said Angela Hall, vice president of publications at the
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. He landed in jail several times,
and when the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was arrested, Mr. Armstrong was
close behind to protect him, Floyd said.
"I went to jail so many times until the man wanted to know when I was
going to stop coming over here -- he had my fingerprints so much,"
Mr. Armstrong told a historian. "I said, 'Well, you get things
straight, I don't have to come.'"
Obama's win his, too
In 1957, Mr. Armstrong sued after unsuccessfully trying to enroll his
children at the all-white Graymont Elementary. Several years later,
when two of his sons became the first black students to attend the
school, Mr. Armstrong would go every day before classes let out to
ensure they were safe. After Dwight Armstrong came home with a
bloodied lip, he advised his sons to go to the drinking fountain as a pair.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Mr. Armstrong was elated
because it was the culmination of his work, Floyd said. He was
heartbroken when, because of poor health, he had to cancel his trip
to Washington for the inauguration, she said.
His activism continued in later years, as he sought to pass along
history in his humble way. He would invite the neighborhood children
over and share his stories, said Bernetia Ford, Mr. Armstrong's
neighbor. As a volunteer at the Civil Rights Institute, he would tell
visitors every week the experience behind the photo of him and his
sons on exhibit.
"With the exception of the weekend he was down in Selma for the
bridge crossing," Hall said, "you could count on him to be here every Sunday."