Armstrong, a barber by trade, was best known for his role in a six-year lawsuit that helped end formal school segregation in the Deep South. Armstrong lived to see integrated schools in his native Alabama. But he could not outlive "employment terrorism," a tactic that was used against civil-rights activists in the 1950s and '60s--and still is being used today.
How do we know it still exists? My wife and I both have been the victims of it.
I was cheated out of my job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in May 2008 (after 19 years of service) because I dared to write a blog that was critical of the George W. Bush Justice Department, particularly its handling of the Don Siegelman case. My wife was cheated out of her job at Infinity Property & Casualty Corporation in October 2009, apparently because we had filed a lawsuit against unethical debt collectors.
Kertesz writes about the difficult road Armstrong and others faced in trying to end school segregation:
Armstrong's 1957 lawsuit to allow his children to enter Graymont Elementary dragged on for six years. As his first two kids aged, his two youngest, Dwight and Floyd, joined the case. All other plaintiffs had to drop out as they were fired from their jobs. But Armstrong owned his shop. A steady flow of customers allowed him to stay in the case until he won. That's why the shop's chairs, one of which sits in the Civil Rights Institute, are so important.
Mrs. Schnauzer and I were stunned when we read that. We had no idea that some of those who fought on the front line of the civil-rights struggle, had been fired from their jobs--simply for standing up for what was right. We were even more stunned to think that, for all of the progress our nation has made in terms of social justice, this kind of evil still is going on today.
To be sure, the challenges my wife and I now face are minor compared to what James Armstrong and others battled some 50 years ago. Kertesz writes movingly about the spirit that carried Armstrong and others to higher ground:
Part of Armstrong's durability was that he transformed every adversity into strength. Chuckling, he credited Gov. George Wallace and Connor for the civil rights movement's success:
"Thank God for George Wallace. Thank God for Bull Connor. Because they didn't do nothin' but encourage us to keep strong . . . That's that. That's the way I take it, and so both of them gone, and you didn't stop anything!"
For a middle-aged white man raised by immigrants who fled persecution, one of my questions has always been how people survive painful experience and grow to the point of helping others. My parents and my patients have taught me lessons about these things.
But Armstrong went one better: He not only survived adversity to the point of helping others, he thrived on beating it. Grit and humor, and faith, shined through every story he told. And he was one hell of a barber.
A thank you to Stefan Kertesz for educating us about the civil-rights movement. And an extra big thank you to James Armstrong for blazing a trail that contains unfinished business.
Will we someday look back and say, with a chuckle, that we are grateful people like Karl Rove, Leura Canary, Alice Martin, and others helped push us toward justice in America?
May a can-do spirit help us complete the task that James Armstrong so bravely helped to start.