Former Freedom Rider talks of getting involved
By David Sharos For The Sun February 28, 2013 9:06PM
Thomas Armstrong poses with former classmates Marie and Ben Shepherd. | Submitted
Updated: April 4, 2013 6:29AM
The monthly meeting of the Naperville Township Democratic Organization offered a little something extra Thursday night as there was more than just regular business matters on the agenda.
The evening was highlighted by the appearance of Thomas Armstrong, 71, who has been speaking at various locations this month about his book, “Autobiography of a Freedom Rider” as well about his participation in civil rights activities throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
A local resident and election judge, Armstrong has been speaking at the request of the Illinois Arts Council during Black History Month.
He was supposed to appear a few days earlier on a panel at North Central College, but the event was cancelled due to inclement weather. Dianne McGuire, chairman of the Naperville Township Democratic Organization, said she expected a large turnout Thursday, especially in light of the cancellation a few days earlier.
“There are a number of predominantly black churches in the area who learned that the event at North Central was cancelled the other night and I’m expecting a lot of them to show up tonight,” McGuire said before the meeting. “When I was putting this month’s program together, I wanted to offer something that would focus on Black History Month, and having Tom talk about his book and his experiences is a great way to underscore the progress that has been made as well as the work that still needs to be done.”
Armstrong’s portion of the program featured about a 30-minute presentation, followed by questions and discussion with the audience. Dressed in a sport coat and tie, Armstrong spoke before a group of approximately 60 that included adults as well as children.
“I became involved in my activities in the South because of a man named Medgar Evers who convinced me to work in the area of voter registration,” Armstrong said. “There also was the issue of segregation in the Southern Methodist Church, whereas in the North, the same Methodist churches were entirely integrated. We got involved because we knew that eventually, things would change.”
Many in the audience spoke about being connected in some way with Armstrong’s experiences. Cliff Mason of Aurora, who works with the African Methodist Episcopal group, brought his daughter along to the meeting and said that Armstrong’s experiences are ones that tie people together.
“It’s the same as Hurricane Katrina or anything else that has happened to people, either now or throughout history,” he said. “When people like Tom Armstrong talk, others hearing him come together and we all learn more. The experience of others becomes our common experience. It’s appropriate that we hear someone like him as a way of recognizing Black History Month, but the events that happened during the Civil Rights era are a part of the history many of us here lived through as well.”
Lynn Pries, who currently serves as the chaplain at North Central College, also said he had a connection with Thursday night’s speaker.
“Tom and I were supposed to speak on the panel together a few days ago at the college, and we are looking to reschedule that event,” Pries said. “Decades ago when Tom was a college student, he ran into a friend of mine named Ed King, who was Tom’s college chaplain at the time. Many of the actions of people then should inspire people today. Those young people of the time had courage and those who question what can be done today can see by his example the change that can be made in people’s lives.”
Armstrong said that “no group can be singled out as being a victim of oppression” since any oppression is unacceptable, regardless of how many it impacts. The hope for the future, he said, lies in young people.
“Through the years, I’ve seen each generation live more in harmony with one another than the generation before,” he said. “There are many that are still oppressed, but the hope comes from the young people that continue to follow.”