A Freedom Rider Recounts Hidden Civil Rights History, Recalls “The Little People”

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Thomas Armstrong (Courtesy Maywood Public Library)

February 26, 2014, MAYWOOD || By Michael Romain

“If I could do it, I’d make room for all the little people up here today on whose shoulders we stand,” said Thomas Armstrong, a former civil rights activist and co-author (with Natalie Bell) of his memoir Autobiography of a Freedom Rider. He was speaking at the Maywood Public Library last Saturday in front of a hushed gathering of earnest listeners–young and old, white and black–the very kinds of everyday people who the textbooks rarely bother mentioning.

Mr. Armstrong noted that in the Mississippi of his youth, this meeting would’ve been against the law and its participants, if caught, most likely thrown in jail. Such were the onerous social conditions that motivated ordinary people, many of them teenagers, to form the groundswell of local, bottom-up opposition that would ultimately forge the top-down history that many of us are taught today.

“It remains a tragedy how the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights movement have been treated by the past–their stories have never been told….The efforts of the least of these, those at the bottom of the economic ladder, languish in invisibility,” Mr. Armstrong said.

A Mississippi Rite of Passage

Mr. Armstrong was born and raised in rural Jefferson Davis County, in the all-black community of Lucas, Mississippi. His first encounter with civil rights (or the glaring lack of them) occurred one morning when he was 13, after a long night of listening to the blues on a rickety radio. He’d often fall asleep to the music under the covers so that his father wouldn’t hear. One night, he listened to the music for so long that he woke up too late to catch the bus to school.

So in lieu of the bus, he hitched a ride with a gentleman who dropped him off near an ice cream parlor, where he attempted to buy a tasty treat to keep him cool under the blazing Mississippi sun. When he approached the parlor, the attendant seemed surprised by his presence.

“What’s the matter boy? Can’t you read?” the attendant said, pointing to a WHITES ONLY sign. Young Thomas was directed to go to the back of the parlor, the only area where coloreds were allowed to buy.

“So I walked around back and saw a drum full of flies,” Mr. Armstrong said. “I told my cousin about it and he said that the family would never get ice cream there again.”

Despite the subtle family protest, the indignities would continue throughout his teenage years. Mr. Armstrong recounted a litany of grievances that may have sounded fictional to his young listeners.

“When two white boys were walking toward me, I had to get off the sidewalk. When I shopped for shoes, I had to sketch my shoe on a piece of paper and give the sketch to the clerk. I couldn’t try it on in the store. I had to wait in lines at stores until whites were served.

“I couldn’t testify against whites in court. Interracial marriages were banned. At the movie houses, I sat in the balcony while whites sat on the ground floor and watched the movie better.

“Substandard books were given to my schools, passed from white schools. In science and chemistry classes, students had to demonstrate with alcohol with a rope wick, while white students had Bunsen burners,” he said.

A Transformation of the Mind

In 1958, Mr. Armstrong enrolled in Tougaloo College, an historically black liberal arts institution in Madison County, just north of Jackson, Mississippi. It was the only place in Mississippi, Mr. Armstrong said, where an interracial group could meet and discuss what they wished.

One night while at Tougaloo, he attended a meeting where a young NAACP field organizer was lecturing passionately about a massive injustice that had occurred just several years earlier.

In 1955, in Jefferson Davis County, there were 1,362 registered voters. The following year, there were only 50. More than a thousand voters in that area had been arbitrarily redacted from the rolls–in one year. The field organizer called off some names of voters who’d been redacted.

“One or two them he mentioned were my family members,” said Mr. Armstrong.

At the end of the meeting, the young organizer wanted to know how many of the students would go out into the bayous of Mississippi and teach the disenfranchised about the registration process.

“I had to go,” Mr. Armstrong said. He was partly rattled by the organizer’s reasoned, logical appeal and partly dazed by the power of the organizer’s personality. The organizer, a young man named Medgar Evers, would become a moral mentor and hero to Mr. Armstrong.

“Medgar marked my path,” Mr. Armstrong said. “He fought both in France and Germany during World War II. He received a Purple Heart….He was the bravest man I ever knew. On June 12, 1963, he was shot dead after attending a civil rights meeting–17 days after his 38th birthday.”

Mr. Armstrong’s education at Tougaloo and his encounter with Mr. Evers taught him that freedom wasn’t one simply inherited by birthright; it was something for which one fought–and not on foreign battlefields and with physical weapons, but at home and with one’s mind. His knowledge of the travails of African-American soldiers would burnish this truth in his mind.

“In all foreign struggles in which the United States was involved, blacks have participated. But when they got back home from foreign soil, they were still second-class citizens,” said Mr. Armstrong.

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Medgar Evers (biography.com).

“Those who tried to change things were killed. Some were killed with their uniforms on. In the 1960s in Mississippi, there were boycotts going on all over the state. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was a spy organization that spied on anyone who did anything that the segregationists in Mississippi didn’t like. The Commission would gather information on you and take that information and pass it on to the Mississippi White Citizens Council that, in turn, passed it on to the Ku Klux Klan, who would then humiliate, harass and kill you if necessary.”

That was the fate of many of Mr. Armstrong’s peers and fellow activists–most of whom are forgotten by history.

“When I speak of those who Medgar called, “the little people,” I’m speaking of the tenant farmers, the domestics, the students, the small business owners of the South. Most of them were young people, 70,000 strong, 14-18 years of age.”

He mentioned some of them by name.

“Lawrence Guyot was a schoolmate of mine and was beaten in many places simply because he was helping people register to vote,” Mr. Armstrong said.

“Lamar Smith was shot dead because he was delivering a fist full of absentee ballots.”

“On June 21, 1964, Micahel Sherner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were traveling from a meeting in Ohio and were arrested by a deputy sheriff outside of town and turned over to the clan. The KKK immediately killed them and buried them in a dam.”

“There were many others: Herbert Lee, Lewis Allen, Henry Day….”

Trial By Fire

Mr. Armstrong could easily have been one among the many silent, invisible tragedies just beyond that ellipsis. By his senior year of college, he had become a relatively well-known figure in the Mississippi student activist scene and had cemented for himself his own small niche in history.

“Most people will tell you that the freedom rides took place in 1961, which they did. But back in 1942, there was a young woman named Irene Morgan who lived in Virginia and worked in Maryland,” Mr. Armstrong said as he recounted the little-known genesis of the Freedom Riders.

“One morning, she took a bus home from work. Before she got out of Maryland, she was pulled off the bus and arrested. The NAACP heard her case and fought it all the way to the Supreme Court and she won. The Supreme Court said that segregation was illegal in public transportation, but the South said, ‘So what?’”

The case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, would provide the constitutional cover for black activists such as James Farmer and James Peck to protest the South’s illegal disregard for the Supreme Court decision 14 years later by boarding public buses in Alabama and riding them throughout the upper South.

When the buses on which those Freedom Riders were traveling were burned with molotov cocktails, the riders barely escaping with their lives, Farmer and his co-conspirators were urged to back down. The rides were getting too risky.

However, there were students in Nashville, Tennessee who decided that the rides shouldn’t stop. They boarded the buses, determined to continue their protest throughout the lower South. When they the buses arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, however, the Freedom Riders were immediately arrested.

“A group of us at Tougaloo decided that we had to do something to help guarantee their safety in jail,” said Mr. Armstrong, “because there was no guarantee they would come out as they went in.”

“So we decided that we need to get into that jail with them. The officers had determined that all of the blacks in Mississippi were happy with our condition and that we’d rather be here than anyplace else in the world. So we had to do something to shut their mouths, because were residents of the state, not outsiders.

Freedom Riders sit outside of a bombed out bus (southernspaces.org).

“So, a group of four of us went to Jackson, Mississippi to the railway station. We entered and purchased our tickets and sat down. Five minutes later, the chief of police came in and told us we had to leave. I told him I already purchased a ticket and had a legal right to ride a bus in Louisiana.

“He said I had to leave, because I was disturbing the peace. I said I hadn’t talked to anyone. He arrested me anyway. After two days of interrogation at the Jackson City jail, we were transferred to Hines County Jail, where were again interviewed. They asked us questions like, ‘Who sent you down here?’ ‘When did you join the Communist Party?’ ‘Why are you a Communist?’” Mr. Armstrong said.

After a week in jail, the president of Tougaloo College came and bailed Mr. Armstrong and his peers out. Their case was used as a class action suit, which was in turn used by Robert Kennedy as a brief in his case against the Interstate Commerce Commmission.

“I was lucky to have been apart of that action,” said Mr. Armstrong. It wouldn’t be the only time he was lucky.

The year 1964 was the year of Freedom Summer, a time of strong democratic ferment in Mississippi, when people from the North came down South to help with voter registration drives. Mr. Armstrong was apart of this effort, which would ultimately yield tremendous fruit.

“We opened up Mississippi’s closed society and its educational and political system. Right now in Mississippi, you have more black elected officials than in any other state in the union,” he said.

But his role in this revolution would not come without a price. By his senior year of college, his efforts had landed him on the Sovereignty Commission’s list of persons to be eliminated. Two of the Commission’s financial support investigators began visiting his with his teachers and relatives, seeking information to use against him. Despite being told to keep the visits secret, they informed Mr. Armstrong, anyway. Since his parents had died when he was young, Mr. Amstrong had been raised by his aunt and uncle, whose last names were Darnes. Because of the confusion, it had taken the Klan an extra year to connect with him. Before they could do any harm, though, his uncle had informed him that there was a ticket out of Mississippi waiting for him. The Klan was on his trails.

“I left and told people I was going to Chicago, when I actually went to Kansas City,” he said.

Maywood Police Chief Val Talley and Thomas Armstrong
Maywood Police Chief Val Talley and Thomas Armstrong.

Dissatisfied with the social activism up North, Mr. Armstrong would return to Mississippi soon afterward, only to find that many of those with whom he’d struggled and fought had themselves left, ceding the battlefield to another generation.

Decades after leaving Mississippi, however, Mr. Armstrong is still spreading the freedom lessons he learned there, still spreading the kind of message he’d help circulate throughout the state’s bayous long ago.

“I greet you all in the name of freedom for all mankind,” he told the audience before recounting his story.

“Some of you voted in 2008. You must realize that in Mississippi, many people died for doing exactly what you did. Some died while attempting it and some died just talking about it.

“It’s no longer sufficient to just say you voted. It’s not enough to wear that little ‘I Voted’ sticker. It’s difficult for me to express the sincerity of our plight today. Too many people have died for our right to vote, and it should be unrestricted and free. So it behooves you in the next election to take somebody else to the polls with you….” VFP

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