Civil Rights Champion Remembered

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Birmingham, Ala., barber and civil rights champion James Armstrong died Wednesday, at age 86. The Army veteran carried the American flag from Selma to Montgomery during the 1965 Voting Rights March. He continued to be active in the Birmingham community throughout his life.


And now a remembrance of a man who may not have organized or led the Civil Rights Movement, but was one of its most dedicated foot soldiers.

JAMES ARMSTRONG: My name's James Armstrong. I born April 27th, 1923. That's what my mama told me.


Born in 1923, and yesterday, James Armstrong died in Birmingham, Alabama. A year ago, he talked with NPR about his life, his work and even his thoughts on death.

ARMSTRONG: Dying isn't the worst thing a man can do. That's the way I've always thought. The worst thing a man can do is nothing.

SIEGEL: And no one could accuse Mr. Armstrong of doing nothing.


SIEGEL: You are ordered to disperse, go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.

SIEGEL: In March, 1965, civil rights activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery calling for voting rights. Armstrong, an Army veteran, carried the American flag.



BLOCK: Even as state troopers tear-gassed the crowd and beat marchers with billy clubs, James Armstrong carried that flag across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.


BLOCK: Witnesses say he fell to his knees, but never let the flag hit the ground.

SIEGEL: And while he may be best known for that moment, he played many roles throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

ARMSTRONG: We fought for things that were discriminated: housing and everything, schools and whatever, lunch counters, jobs. I joined that crowd, went to jail out at the Greyhound bus station. My children went to jail. Everything in my house went to jail, but my dog.

BLOCK: James Armstrong continued to be active in the Birmingham community throughout his life. He volunteered at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, carried the American flag during anniversary marches and ran a barber shop for 57 years.

Unidentified Man #2: How are you doing?

ARMSTRONG: I'm blessed, sir. I just want to tell you, today's going to be a history-making day.

Man #2: Oh, yeah, man. Oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: A history-making day is how Armstrong viewed November 4th, 2008, the date of Barack Obama's election. On that day, NPR's David Gilkey met him at his barbershop and photographed him as he went to the polls. You can see those photos at They're on our blog The Picture Show.

BLOCK: Armstrong preached the importance of voting until the end of his life.

ARMSTRONG: If you want a voice, you want things to go or be better, you have to vote because you can't complain about nothing if you don't vote.

BLOCK: And he said he was usually the first in line to cast his ballot on Election Day.

SIEGEL: Sure enough, last year, James Armstrong was at the polls at 6:15 a.m. to vote for Barack Obama.

ARMSTRONG: I said, now, this will make you feel real good. I said, now, that show you what we can do, as Dr. King told us before he died when he was talking about the promised land. I call him the promised land, Obama. We will get to the promised land. We'll get together and stay together.

BLOCK: James Armstrong. He died yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama from heart failure. He was 86 years old.

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