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Freedom Rider Thomas Armstrong on segregation, progress, and the trauma of war

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Born in Silver Creek, Mississippi, Thomas Armstrong was 14 in 1955—the same year another African-American 14-year-old, Emmett Till, was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Three years later, as a student at Tougaloo College, Armstrong got involved in civil rights work. He organized black Mississippians to register to vote, despite threats on his life. And in 1961 he and three other Tougaloo students took part in the Freedom Rides, a campaign to integrate interstate buses. Though they were arrested in a whites-only waiting room before they could even board their Trailways bus to New Orleans, the so-called Tougaloo Four inspired dozens of others to make the dangerous trips.

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Armstrong had an easier time than others evading the Ku Klux Klan and local officials (often the same people) because his last name was different from that of the relatives who raised him. But by 1962 the Klan had figured out who he was. He fled to Kansas City, then moved on to Chicago. Armstrong now lives in Naperville. His book, Autobiography of a Freedom Rider: My Life as a Foot Soldier for Civil Rights (Health Communications), written with Natalie Bell, was published in May:

You write about going to the county seat, Prentiss, and you couldn't sit on the benches on the main street, except on Black Folks Day, Saturdays. What if you sat there at other times?

The police would come by and ask you to move. They would say, "Don't you think your services are needed in the field somewhere?" And if you didn't leave, they'd put you in jail.

And you'd have to step off the sidewalk if you saw a white person coming, even a kid?

Yeah.

And what if you didn't?

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Most of the time what you did was keep going, so nothing major happened. However, in cases where you bumped into somebody white, and they didn't appreciate you being on the sidewalk, you could get beaten up.

And there'd be no thought of fighting that in the courts or anything?

How could you fight them? You couldn't become a juror.

You talk about nonviolence in the book.

Individuals who came from the north, for many of them, nonviolence was a tactic, a matter of principle. Most African-Americans in the south had no choice. You'd either be nonviolent or dead.

Mostly, you did voter registration training.

Along about my second semester in college at Tougaloo, in 1958, I attended a mass meeting, and Medgar Evers happened to be there. He was telling how people were wiped off the [voting] rolls, and he mentioned my home county, and some of the people who'd been on the rolls were my relatives and acquaintances. After he called for volunteers to help with the voter registration process, I felt I had no choice but to volunteer.

You write that the cause found you.

That was it. I didn't go to that meeting looking to join up. After the Freedom Rides started, the powers that be said that the freedom riders were outside agitators, and that blacks in Mississippi were satisfied with conditions as they were. A group of students at Tougaloo decided that was not the case, and we wanted to tell Governor Ross Barnett that, and the best way was by participating in the Freedom Rides.

What really surprised me was your comment in the book that, with your life always threatened, being in the civil rights movement was like being in a war.

What's unusual is to have come through it unscathed. We call ourselves the walking wounded. When we returned from demonstrations, we had no psychological help. We had bad dreams for years and years after.

At first you found solace in drinking.

Oh yeah.

You've said it's a totally new Mississippi now.

The state is still in a horrible situation. But by the same token, it's not near as bad as it was. We have to look at it based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, in terms of reconciliation. The current problem is we still don't talk to each other as much as we should. There's a truth and reconciliation commission in the state; I was there for the initial stages.

I went to the Prentiss library in 2009 and walked up to the counter and said, "I'd like to see some books by Barack Obama. I don't see any on the shelves." The clerk said, "Oh, we have one. It's out." I said, "OK, where was it?" "Oh, it was back there on the back shelf." I said, "You have Obama on the back shelf and all these Sarah Palin books up here in the showcase."

Did you ask why?

Yes. She didn't know. 

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