Thomas Armstrong: Interview

Monday, September 19, 2011

Thomas Armstrong was born in Silver Creek, Mississippi, in 1941, just a few weeks after the birth of Emmett Till, the Chicago teen who on a visit to relatives in Mississippi was kidnapped and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Orphaned early, Armstrong was raised by close relatives who had a farm and a logging business in an all-black town in the southern Mississippi. This spring in Chicago, Armstrong was on a panel at the DuSable Museum of African American History to discuss Freedom Riders, a documentary about the four hundred people, black and white, who risked their lives to integrate interstate buses in the South in 1961, half a century ago. Armstrong was one of the Tougaloo Four, students who were arrested before they could even board a Trailways bus going from Jackson, Mississippi, to New Orleans.

Armstrong’s book Autobiography of a Freedom Rider: My Life as a Foot Soldier for Civil Rights, written with Natalie R. Bell, was published in May by Health Communications. He spoke with TQO over scrambled eggs, sausage patties, pancakes, and bottomless cups of coffee at George’s Family Restaurant & Pancake House in Oak Park, where Armstrong meets monthly with fellow retirees he worked with as a transportation specialist for the US Postal Service. This is an edited transcript: A version of this interview appeared in the Chicago Reader.

TriQuarterly Online: Mostly you registered voters.

Thomas Armstrong: Yes, in 1955 or 1956, one thousand black individuals from my home county, Jefferson Davis, were wiped off the voting rolls. That’s what inspired me to get into it. Along about my second semester in college at Tougaloo, in 1958—well, you have to understand, Tougaloo was a very progressive school. We considered it to be the only free place in the state of Mississippi where interracial couples could interact. I happened to attend a mass meeting and [NAACP state field secretary] Medgar Evers happened to be there, and he was telling how people were wiped off the rolls. He mentioned my home county, and some of the people who had been on the rolls and were no longer there happened to be my relatives and acquaintances. After he called for volunteers to help with the voter registration process, I felt I had no choice but to volunteer.

In order to register, black citizens would be required to pay a poll tax and interpret a portion of the state constitution. They would also face harassment by white officials and be in danger of losing their jobs, of being beaten and even murdered.

TQO: You say that the cause found you.

TA: That was it. I didn’t going to that meeting looking to join up. A couple of guys on campus were going, and one just asked me, “Do you want to go?” and I said yes.

TQO: Was it just curiosity?

TA: Yes. Yes indeed.

TQO: You said it was a personal transformation.

TA: Yes. It forced me to look at my surroundings, to view it from a different perspective.

Armstrong had a slightly easier time than other civil rights workers because he was somewhat more difficult to locate.

TA: My last name was Armstrong. My adoptive parents were Barnes. It took [the authorities and white supremacists] longer to find me and connect me with my family. And my dad had a friend, a white friend, that supplied him with knowledge of the pulse of the area [about the activities of the Ku Klux Klan].

TQO: You say that you don’t mention the guy’s name in your book because you’re afraid—

TA: He has family there.

TQO: Why would it be problem now? Do you think it would be dangerous for him if people found out that fifty years ago he was helping supply information to black families?

TA: I haven’t spoken with his family. I feel that it’s up to his family: if they want to come forth with information about how they operated during that time, that’s fine.

TQO: You didn’t expect to survive.

TA: You never expected to survive. The atmosphere in the state was such, it was so hateful, that anytime you participated in any kind of demonstration it was just unreal. You didn’t know if you were going to return. And yet you managed to be nonviolent the whole time.

TQO: You talk about nonviolence in the book.

TA: For many individuals who came from the North, nonviolence was a tactic, a matter of principle. Most African Americans in the South had no choice. You’d be either nonviolent or dead. It was that simple. That’s what it boiled down to.

TQO: Or you could be both.

TA: Absolutely [laughing]. But you were definitely going to be dead if you were violent.

After threats on his life, and his family’s, Armstrong left for Kansas City, where he found solace—and torment—in drink. His mentor, Medgar Evers, was murdered in June 1963. Armstrong returned to Mississippi briefly and attended the trial of Evers’s suspected killer. “I guess there came a point where I just couldn’t take all the hate and injustice anymore,” he writes. And he still was in the Ku Klux Klan’s sights. He decided to move again, this time to Chicago.

TQO: You lived in Chicago. When did you move to Naperville? Where all have you lived in the Chicago area?

TA: In early 1964 I moved to the South Side of Chicago, and later I lived on the West Side. We had a home built in Country Club Hills, stayed there ten years. We decided to move to Naperville in 1980. My work was based in Oak Brook. My wife was taking the train to the city; it didn’t matter to her where she caught the train. I had heard about the Naperville school system, and my kids were very very young.

TQO: How were you treated in Naperville?

TA: Very well. We moved into a cul-de-sac; there are eight homes in the cul-de-sac, we were welcomed right in.

TQO: Are they all white?

TA: Yes, they’re all white.

TQO: DuPage County is white, Republican.

TA: It is.

TQO: How about the schools?

TA: We enjoyed the schools. We thought they were very good for our kids. Our youngest, through the school system, visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South America.

TQO: Were most of your daughters’ schoolmates white?

TA: Almost all of them.

TQO: And you never felt discrimination?

TA: Oh no, not really. I might have had one taunt; someone may have called me a name once.

TQO: What really surprised me about the book, but made total sense, was that you write that being in the civil rights movement, where your life was always threatened, was like being in a war. You really went through PTSD when you went to Kansas City.

TA: What was unusual was to come through it unscathed. I have a group of friends, about six of us. In fact, every year there is a Mississippi civil rights conference. Sometime during that conference we get together and have our little round table and talk about what we did and why we did it—and we have no idea why we did certain things. At the end somebody says, “We did it because we’re all crazy.” We didn’t have sense enough to realize what fear was. We call ourselves the walking wounded. When we returned from a demonstration, we had no psychological help. It was a stressful situation; you dreamed about it years and years later.

TQO: Do you still have nightmares?

TA: I don’t have them now; they’ve slowly quieted down, over thirty years.

TQO: You write about going to the county seat, Prentiss, when you were growing up, and you couldn’t sit on the benches on the main street, except on Black Folks Day, Saturday. What if you sat there other times?

TA: Police would just come by and ask you to move. They’d say, “Don’t you think your services are needed in the field?” They would arrest you if you didn’t move.

TQO: Did you have to step off the sidewalk for any white person, even a kid?

TA: Yes.

TQO: And what if you didn’t?

TA: It depends. Most of the times what you did was keep going so nothing major happened. However, in cases where you bumped into somebody and they didn’t appreciate you being on the sidewalk, you could get beaten up. There was a humiliation that mainly females experienced. They could not try on garments. They would have to take them home, try them on, and bring them back if they didn’t fit.

TQO: And your uncle had brain damage from whites taunting him while on his horse.

TA: Absolutely. Since then he could remember the past but couldn’t remember anything in the present. He lived with us for years. He was just riding along on a horse, a group of whites were on the bridge, and when he came by they deliberately scared the horse and it threw him off the side of the bridge.

TQO: And there would be no thought of fighting that  in the courts or anything, obviously.

TA: How could you fight them? You couldn’t become a juror, you know.

TQO: You always hear that Chicago is the most segregated northern city in the United States, and you look at the schools, and they’re segregated, and neighborhoods are segregated. There are still some hate crimes. Do you have thoughts on how those two places compare?

TA: Segregation in Mississippi was more overt. I mean both are bad, don’t get me wrong. Here in Chicago it’s more undercover. I’ll give you an example. If I was applying for a job in Mississippi that they didn’t want me to have, they would just say, “You can’t apply.” In Chicago I remember once applying for a job. It was with the postal service, and I was already working for the postal service. This was in 1967 and it was kind of a higher-level job. It boiled down to who could write the best business letter. I thought that was kind of stupid. I wasn’t hired for the job, but I had only been there a year and half. But the guy who got the job had only been there about six months.

TQO: And he was white—

TA: Yes. And similar things happened in my thirty-seven and a half years with the postal service. You realize you’re training your next manager.

TQO: Did you protest?

TA: First of all, hard to prove. I guess I wanted to stay away from controversy during that time as much as possible.

TQO: At the event at DuSable where the film was shown, I was surprised that a young man said he’d never heard of Freedom Riders until seeing the movie.

TA: That was amazing. Wow, I could hardly believe it.

TQO: How many of these kinds of programs have you participated in?

TA: Lots of them.

TQO: High school and college?

TA: Yes.

TQO: How are the black and white audiences different?

TA: The black students come to me after, and they’re happy that I did what I did. Glad. The whites are more resigned. They don’t see race as being as much of a problem now as the black students do.

TQO: You said it’s a totally new Mississippi, the majority of elected officials are black.

TA: The state is still in a horrible situation, but by the same token, it’s not near as bad as it was. We have to look at it based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in terms of reconciliation. There’s a truth and reconciliation commission in the state. I was there to join the initial stages. The current problem is, we still don’t talk to each other as much as we should.