Naperville man looks back on segregation, Freedom Rides
Thomas Armstrong woke up late that hot Mississippi morning.
Having missed the bus from his home in a small farming community to his high school five miles away in Prentiss, he hitched a car ride into town and got dropped off in front of Dairy King, a chain of ice cream parlors across the state. The balmy morning demanded a scoop of the frozen treat.
Armstrong walked up to the front window, where a white server told him he was at the wrong entrance and to go around back.
Next to the sign stamped, "Colored," stood a metal drum stuffed with garbage and buzzing with flies.
The black teenager didn't wait for his ice cream and walked away.
"I knew that wasn't right," Armstrong said.
Certainly, Armstrong understood he had to act a certain way around whites. But he had never before encountered -- on his own -- the humiliation facing blacks living in 1950s Jim Crow South. After all, as a younger kid, his life centered around his home in Lucas, a tight-knit, largely black town.
His family never went to that Dairy King again, a boycott of sorts and one of his first acts against segregation.
Armstrong, now 72 and living in Naperville, later protested the hiring practices of Jackson, Miss., businesses and worked to integrate interstate transportation by shepherding Freedom Riders to safety.
His activism carried great risk. He and his family received death threats. The traumatic memories led to nightmares and drinking.
Ahead of the tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. across the suburbs today, Armstrong reflected on his legacy in the civil rights movement.
Armstrong's mother died when he was a toddler. With few job prospects in southwestern Mississippi, his dad moved to Chicago in search of work. The boy was left with his father's sister and her husband, a logger.
"We got along well," Armstrong said. "We didn't experience a lot of the hardships that many in the immediate area experienced."
His uncle was strict, a man who never made it past the fourth grade but still could add and subtract "faster than a calculator," Armstrong remembered.
He maintained a small farm, mostly for hay and corn to feed the Clydesdale horses that hauled pine logs to sawmills. And his uncle planted three acres of cotton to keep Armstrong and his cousins busy with chores and out of trouble on Saturdays.
Armstrong's aunt was a spiritual woman who believed higher education for her children would lead to a better life.
It was mostly in Prentiss, the Jefferson Davis County seat, where the family experienced the stifling rules separating blacks and whites.
If he went to a shoe store, Armstrong couldn't try on a pair. He could only trace the print of his foot on a piece of paper and hope for the right size.
On certain days of the week, blacks couldn't sit on benches along one street corner.
"If you stepped outside that imaginary boundary of segregation, anything could happen to you," Armstrong said.
'I couldn't sit around'
After graduating high school, Armstrong headed to the mostly black Tougaloo College near Jackson. His teachers there gave him a crucial lesson.
"They taught me that freedom was out there, but I had to get it," Armstrong said. "I couldn't sit around and wait for it to come for me."
During his freshman year, Armstrong attended a meeting featuring civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was recruiting Tougaloo students to get blacks back on the voting rolls.
When Armstrong learned friends and family were among those denied the right to vote, he was outraged.
He and other students met Friday after classes to trade strategies and worked with ministers to reach out to disenfranchised communities. When they met with county registrars, the men wore suits, and the women wore dresses.
Most of the time, county officials refused to register them. But Armstrong formed bonds with activists "that cannot be broken."
"It taught you to work together with individuals who you may not even know and may be of a different culture all together toward peace and harmony in the country," Armstrong said. "We learned how to deal with other people in trying to better ourselves and better the country."
In 1961, Armstrong switched tactics.
Tougaloo students flocked to television sets on campus and watched in horror at the flames after a mob had firebombed a bus full of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Ala.
The riders, interracial groups of men and women, many of them students, had set off from Washington, D.C., on Greyhounds and Trailways traveling into the Deep South to defy the segregation of interstate transit.
Another bus of passengers was attacked in Montgomery, Ala. In Mississippi, police arrested Freedom Riders pulling into Jackson.
Armstrong wanted to confront the headlines saying Freedom Riders were "outside agitators." He and three others walked into a Jackson bus station and sat down in a waiting room reserved for whites.
Police arrested the group -- later called the "Tougaloo Four" -- before they could board a bus for New Orleans and loaded them into a police wagon for the Jackson city jail.
Police interrogated the group and delivered a few slaps, he said. The group kept up morale by singing "We Shall Overcome" through the night.
"Once you went into the jail system, you hardly came out the same way you went in, physically or mentally," Armstrong said.
Tougaloo's president bailed him out of jail a few days later.
When civil rights groups focused on McComb, Miss., a hotbed of brutality, Armstrong took on a new role despite his arrest.
He and another classmate were assigned to pick up six Freedom Riders and drive them to a safe house. He noticed the streets outside the bus station were empty save for a few police officers. One of them was brazenly cleaning his nails with a switchblade.
Feeling something was wrong, he went into the bus terminal to warn the group. As the Freedom Riders stepped outside, a mob carrying bats and sticks shot out of businesses and swarmed the street.
"Strangely enough, we were not their primary target," Armstrong said.
The mob descended on a group of journalists trying to capture the violence. The angry crowd beat camera crews unmercifully, said Armstrong, who escaped unharmed.
Later that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission, pressured by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, ruled for an end to segregation in all facilities under its control.
Armstrong still wonders what made him take on such hatred. He bristles at suggestions he was brave. It was something he had to do, he said.
"Somehow, somewhere, there has to be a blueprint deeply embedded in some of our souls that we are mandated to follow," he wrote in a 2011 book.
'Relief' in Naperville
In the middle of his senior year at Tougaloo, Armstrong was forced to leave Mississippi after his uncle's white friend heard of Ku Klux Klan rumblings against Armstrong.
He stayed with relatives in Kansas City, Mo., for a few years. Although he briefly returned to his home state, he eventually settled in the Chicago area, met his wife, and got a job with the U.S. Postal Service.
The couple moved to Naperville with their two young daughters in the 1980s, drawn to good schools and a shorter commute to Armstrong's work in Oak Brook.
Now retired, he lives on a quiet, mostly white cul-de-sac. Here, he's never been the target of cruelty, he says.
"This was something you were working for, the openness that you saw here," Armstrong said of Naperville. "It was kind of a relief."
He rarely talked about his Tougaloo years until his granddaughter thought she saw him in a documentary and asked him to share his story. While it wasn't him, the request led Armstrong to co-author a book: "Autobiography of a Freedom Rider: My Life as a Foot Soldier for Civil Rights."
Each year, he goes to a three-day conference in Mississippi for veterans of the civil rights movement. While he sees gains in the representation of blacks in political office, he sees failures in the state's education system.
"We have to keep pushing, no matter what," he said.
At 72, Armstrong continues to visit schools. He's set to speak at the Aurora Public Library's Eola Road branch Feb. 1, as part of Black History Month.
Looking back on the era, it's easy to freeze on the big names, but Armstrong reminded students during a North Central College panel that ordinary people "make a difference," history professor Ann Durkin Keating said.
"And he's not ordinary, but at the same time, he's writing and speaking from, 'This is something that we all should be willing to do,'" Keating said.
Armstrong hopes he inspires students to stand up against injustice.
"They can work to change the world," he said.