James Armstrong was born in Orrville, Alabama, in 1923 to parents who, according to Armstrong, received less than a sixth-grade education. At the age of 18, after successfully completing high school, Armstrong was drafted into the army, where he served from 1943 to 1946. Recalling this period of his life, Armstrong said that the battle overseas prepared him for “another fight.” Upon his return, Armstrong worked in Selma and Mobile before settling down in a third town in Alabama, Birmingham, where he opened a barbershop in the College Hills community in 1953. His dedication to the politics of the civil rights movement was soon known to all his customers, as he adorned his door with aphorisms, such as, If you think education is expensive, try ignorance and If you don’t vote, don’t talk politics in here. On Armstrong’s barbershop wall hung photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., including one of King seated in Armstrong’s barber chair.
Armstrong’s commitment to civil rights took him to the front lines as a “foot soldier”—one of hundreds of Americans who fought each day for racial equality. Armstrong carried the American flag during a 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery (on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday), during which it is said that Armstrong was beaten to his knees but never dropped the flag. Over the years, he also participated in and was jailed for various anti-segregation demonstrations. In 1957, he filed a class-action lawsuit that would lead to his two sons’ enrolling as the first black students at the previously all-white Graymont Elementary in 1963. He also served as a board member, voting rights education teacher and volunteer at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Throughout Armstrong’s life, the goals of education, justice and having the ability to make change guided every decision he made and every lesson that he instilled in his children, grandchildren and fellow community members. Before he died of heart failure in 2009 at the age of 86, Armstrong witnessed the campaign and 2008 election of the first black president, Barack Obama.<
Caption: James Armstrong
Credit: Photo still from The Barber of Birmingham
» ALEX (Alabama Learning Exchange). “Oral History Interview with James Armstrong.”
» The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement. “Background.”
» The Institute for Southern Studies. “Remembering Civil Rights Leader James Armstrong.”
» Stock, Erin. “James Armstrong, Civil Rights Flag Bearer, Dies.” The Birmingham News, November 19, 2009.
» Tributes.com. “James Armstrong.”
» Trice, Dawn Turner. “Civil Rights Lessons from James Armstrong’s Barber Chair.” Chicago Tribune, April 4, 2010.