Naperville author shares experience as civil rights Freedom Rider
By David Sharos For The Sun February 21, 2013 6:36PM
Thomas Armstrong poses with former classmates Marie and Ben Shepherd. | Submitted
To see him
Here’s a guide to where and when Naperville resident Tom Armstrong, a former civil rights activist will appear.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26
Where: Koten Chapel at Kiekhofer Hall, 329 E. School St., Naperville
Other guests: The Rev. Martin Deppe, a retired Methodist pastor who served for decades in the Chicago area and participated in efforts to desegregate churches in Jackson; and North Central 1959 alumnus the Rev. Robert Harman, keynote speaker at the college’s 2010 Martin Luther King Breakfast, who marched with Dr. King in Chicago in 1966.
What: Community Forum of the Naperville Township Democratic Organization
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: City of Naperville Municipal Center, 400 S. Eagle St., in meeting rooms B&C on the lower level.
Web: Visit napervilledemocrats.org for further information.
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:22AM
The celebration of Black History Month during February will conclude this week with a powerful exclamation point. Naperville resident Tom Armstrong will share observations and experiences about his own racial battles fought in the South during the time when our country faced some of its most intense civil rights activities.
He will speak twice: Tuesday on the campus of North Central College and Thursday at a community forum of the Naperville Township Democratic Organization. Armstrong will talk about his book “Autobiography of a Freedom Rider,” published in May 2011.
Armstrong, 71, said his appearance Thursday will focus on his experiences during the 1950s and 1960s as well as his book “which continues to sell all over the world.”
“It’s not a best-seller yet by any means, but sales have been steady since its release nearly two years ago,” Armstrong said. “We know that readers have been all over the board, from whites and blacks, men and women, and Generation X. It appears they were waiting for a book like this.”
Armstrong, who was born in Mississippi, was 14 years old at the same time as Emmitt Till, another 14-year-old visiting Mississippi from Chicago, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered for whistling at a white woman. Three years later, while attending Tougaloo College, Armstrong became active in the civil rights struggles of the time.
“One of the issues then was that blacks were not allowed to worship in the Methodist church, and there were ministers from the North who would come down and support us,” Armstrong said.
A number of those ministers will appear with Armstrong two days earlier on Tuesday, when North Central College will host “1963 Protests for Civil Rights: Desegregation in Jackson, Miss. — A Panel Discussion 50 Years Later.”
Dianne McGuire, 66, chairman of the Naperville Township Democratic Organization, said she met Armstrong two years ago when she reached out to election judges.
“Tom has been active at least 10 years as an election judge, and he brings to the table real life experiences,” McGuire said. “He was a part of the process when people were striving and struggling together seeking civil rights, which is still ongoing. There are still issues with women and with marriage equality.”
McGuire said that, when she learned Armstrong was writing a book, she knew she wanted to invite him as a speaker.
“I’m 66, and both he and I grew up in an era that was amazing to behold,” she said. “I came from South Dakota, so I was quite removed from a lot of the civil rights events, but I’m sure a lot of us are going to be excited to hear about things that happened back then first hand. Tom is someone who will help us realize we are still working towards the full implementation of our democracy.”
Armstrong said he hopes to share with his audiences this week words about how far civil rights have come, while still cautioning that there is still work to be done.
“If you ask people that were the foot soldiers — the unsung heroes that languished in invisibility and were never seen on TV — about things like Obama becoming president, they’d tell you they aren’t surprised,” Armstrong said. “We all saw this coming. But this past year, there were 26 states that attempted to implement voting restriction laws. We need to have voting (be) free.”