'You need to try to right that wrong': Freedom Rider urges Buffalo Grove students to fight racism
In 1961, Thomas Armstrong sat in a whites-only waiting room at a Jackson, Mississippi, bus station as he and three other Tougaloo College students tried to board a bus for New Orleans.
They were arrested and taken to jail instead.
Later known as the "Tougaloo Four," they marked their place in civil rights history as part of the Freedom Riders movement of some 400 blacks and whites who protested segregated interstate bus systems in the South.
Today, the 77-year-old Naperville resident still speaks to groups about his story -- particularly young people -- asking them to ask themselves: "Who am I?" and "Why am I here on Earth?"
"In the civil rights movement, it was students just like you who were leaders," he told more than 500 juniors and seniors Wednesday afternoon at Buffalo Grove High School. "They became leaders just like you are going to become leaders. When you see things that need to be changed, you're going to have to speak up. When you see wrong, you've got to speak up against it, and you need to try to right that wrong."
Armstrong, talking to students just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, was there as the school opened a national traveling exhibit on the Freedom Riders. The exhibit, located in the school library, will be open to schools and community groups from Jan. 28-Feb. 7 during school hours. To sign up for a viewing, visit bit.ly/2Qu6dlX.
The Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Education Foundation funded installation of the exhibit and the program.
Armstrong, who also was to speak during a public event at the school Wednesday night, got involved in the growing civil rights movement in the late 1950s by trying to re-register black voters who were taken off local voting rolls. He later worked to integrate Protestant churches in Jackson before moving to the Chicago area in 1964.
Armstrong on Wednesday encouraged the Buffalo Grove students to speak up against racism, which he called "a sanctuary for the stupid and ignorant." He noted that upon his visits to schools, he often sees students sitting only with others of the same race.
"We don't talk to each other. What's wrong with us?" Armstrong said. "When I go into a public establishment and there's blacks on one side and whites on the another, I sit right in the middle of the whites just to keep it honest. We've got to learn to talk to each other."
Among the students listening to Armstrong Wednesday was Nakayla Brakes, a senior who recently took an elective multicultural literature course, where issues of race were regularly discussed by students of different backgrounds.
"People were comfortable talking about topics you normally don't talk about," Brakes said. "You realize you're not as different as it seemed."