As both dream and reality, justice has always driven Thomas Armstrong.
It inspired him years before Dr. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered half a century ago Wednesday, when Armstrong was in college during the turbulent years we now call the civil rights era. A student at Tougaloo College, the only private school that permitted integrated enrollment in late 1950s Mississippi, he stepped into the stream of discontent that was gaining momentum when he attended a gathering one evening.
“They were having mass meetings then,” the 33-year Naperville resident said, alluding to the sessions being held in community rooms, schools and church halls to spread the word about the voter registration efforts under way.
The moderator that evening “just happened to be” celebrated activist Medgar Evers, who for several years had been organizing boycotts as an officer in the state NAACP.
The discussion at that mass meeting centered on people who had, for no particular reason, been removed from the voter rolls — some 1,000 of them in Jefferson Davis County, where Armstrong lived, alone.
“There was no rationale,” said Armstrong, 72. “You’re black, and they didn’t want you on the voter rolls.”
For the next four years, he worked with Evers on signing up voters. The effort sometimes put him and his fellow activists in harm’s way. Twice he left the area, his family and friends behind — for his own safety. Once he returned home and descended from the bus to find police waiting for him, thanks to the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which “spied on anybody who stepped out of line,” Armstrong said.
“You cross that imaginary segregation line, you were subject to anything: beatings, murder,” he said.
He was “kind of laying a little low” when King’s speech stirred the nation in August 1963 — 2 1/2 months after a white supremacist had gunned Evers down in his own driveway.
On the bus
The book Armstrong released two years ago, “Autobiography of a Freedom Rider: My Life as a Foot Soldier for Civil Rights,” began to take shape well before he and others started riding buses in protest against segregation in the public bus system in 1960. The movement had its roots in the two-week act of civil disobedience known as The Journey of Reconciliation, also triggered by policies of racial separation on public buses, in the spring of 1947. Inspired by that demonstration of nonviolent protest, Armstrong thought it made sense to climb aboard.
“It was just kind of a natural progression,” he said.
It didn’t always feel natural. Again and again, Freedom Riders were taken off buses, sometimes beaten, and hauled off to jail.
“Jails in Mississippi were notoriously cruel at that time,” Armstrong said. “Healthwise, when you went in, you hardly ever came out unchanged — either psychologically or physically.”
That only motivated the activists. Like King — who was jailed in Birmingham, attacked in Chicago’s Marquette Park and set upon by dogs in Selma, Ala. — they resolved to soldier on.
In late spring 1961, Armstrong and three others came into the Jackson bus station and again found police officers awaiting — this time numbering nearly two dozen, and joined a few minutes later by the department chief.
“We said, ‘We have tickets. We’re not just sitting here,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you have tickets. You’re also under arrest,’” he said.
By the time the movement ended, more than 400 Freedom Riders had been arrested in Jackson, all on the same charge: breach of the peace.
“It didn’t matter whether you said anything,” Armstrong said.
Talking and teaching
It did matter to him what was said about injustice. Armstrong heard King speak of it, meeting the civil rights leader several times when he visited Tougaloo. And he heard of it often from Professor Ernst Borinski, head of the college’s sociology department, a desegregation activist who had fled Nazi Germany shortly before the start of World War II.
“He would always tell us, ‘Freedom is out there, but it isn’t going to just come to you if you sit there. You have to go out and find it,’” Armstrong said.
He continues looking. Recently enacted restrictions on voting in some states, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that last month struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have ignited activists anew.
“It gives us more energy,” he said, noting that the intolerance of injustice has become far more widespread. “Almost everyone is appalled at the decision that was made.”
Although consensus is coming closer, there is still work to be done on the issue of equality — including its status in Armstrong’s hometown. He thinks we all need to talk more about it.
“You go into Naperville North High School, to the cafeteria, and there’s black kids over here, Latino kids over there,” he said. “All of that is learned. We have to teach our children differently.”
And as for King’s vision, Armstrong still sees it clearly. It’s always been about the dream.
“It’s unfulfilled, so of course it remains the same dream,” he said. “The dream was about social and economic justice.”