For brothers Michael Key and Bradley West, a recent haircut at Ron’s Barbershop in Austin turned into a history lesson about the Civil Rights Movement.
As the sound of hair clippers whizzed in the background, the brothers listened intently to Thomas Armstrong III, who recounted his involvement in the Freedom Rides of 1961.
“It’s a very different feeling from reading about it or having someone else tell you about it,” said West, 15, a student at Steinmetz High School. “When you hear it straight from the person, it’s raw; it’s real. It captures your attention.”
Key, a 14-year-old Von Steuben High School freshman, added that it’s history not found in any text book.
Armstrong, 70, spoke about his efforts in the Freedom Rides as part of the Illinois Humanities Council’s Café Society, which offers a series of conversations in neighborhood locations, including barber shops. There, individuals can discuss current events and other important political and social issues. Armstrong also discussed his book, Autobiography of a Freedom Rider: My Life as a Foot Soldier for Civil Rights. In it, he described how his grandparents voted in the 1867 general election, but no one in his family ever voted again after that year because of increased “intimidation” against blacks.
Armstrong’s decision to get involved in the movement was anything but text book. As a young college student in 1961, Armstrong defied Jim Crow laws that segregated races in public places when he sat down in the “white’s only” section at a Jackson, Miss. Trailways bus station.
His defiance landed Armstrong in a city jail and a place in American history. He became part of a gallant fight to end segregation on public buses, trains or trolleys. In 1961, black and white college students boarded buses to test southern states’ long-held practice of segregating races in interstate travel, even though the U.S. Supreme court had outlawed such practices.
Jail was where Armstrong wanted to be. He and fellow Tougaloo College students had been following the Freedom Riders’ progress as they traveled south from Washington D.C. Armstrong recalled he and his classmates becoming alarmed at the violence the Freedom Riders faced.
In Anniston, Ala., one bus was firebombed by an angry mob while escaping passengers were beaten with bats. In Birmingham, a second bus was attacked. Their next stop was Jackson, Miss. where officials promised to arrest agitators.
“Our jails in Mississippi have a history and that history is if you went into that jail you would definitely get beat up,” Armstrong said.
He and three other Tougaloo students hatched a plan to get arrested in order to be jailed with the Freedom Riders-the goal was to ensure their safety.
“As we approached the Trailways bus station, we noticed hordes of policemen. We went in, sat down…and two minutes later the chief of police came in,” Armstrong said, adding that they were accused of “disturbing the peace.”
The Tougaloo students were arrested and faced hours of interrogation. The local jails were filled with Freedom Riders who opted to remain jailed for 40 days, the maximum time set to appeal one’s case. The Freedom Riders faced harsh conditions while in jail; many sleeping on the cold floor without mattresses or blankets.
Armstrong was sparred that indignity when the president of Tougaloo College bonded him out of jail after four days. When asked why he risked his life as a young black man for civil rights, Armstrong, a retired postal worker, echoed the words of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer.
“We just got sick and tired of it,” he said.