NPR logo Civil Rights Icon James Armstrong Dies

Civil Rights Icon James Armstrong Dies

A well-recognized foot soldier in the Civil Rights movement died Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. James Armstrong marched at the head of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. The Army veteran carried the American flag across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge as state troopers beat back marchers in what became known as Bloody Sunday. The struggle galvanized national support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Witnesses said Armstrong dropped to his knees, but never dropped the flag during the clash.

James Armstrong on election day 2008. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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David Gilkey/NPR

Armstrong ran a Birmingham barbershop for more than 50 years, and was instrumental in civil rights activities there. He sued to integrate schools, and helped coordinate sit-ins and demonstrations.

"I was always involved, always going to jail, always in the newspaper." Armstrong told NPR's David Gilkey on election day 2008. (Watch the video above).

"If you want a voice, you want things to be better, you have to vote.....I don't come to work until I vote, makes no difference how long the line is. I vote first." He said he votes because older generations didn't have the chance. "I never heard my Daddy talk about voting. I never heard my Mama talk about voting," he said.

Year after year, Armstrong carried the flag during reenactments of the voting rights march in Selma.

Armstrong was 86. His family said he died of heart failure.