When you think of the civil rights movement, names like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and events like Bloody Sunday come to mind. But for years, only the community of Birmingham knew the name James Armstrong. Called “The Barber of Birmingham,” Armstrong was the local barber whose clients included Reverend King and Reverend Shuttlesworth.
A neighborhood man and Army veteran who’s responsibility was flag bearer during the war, Armstrong proudly hung the American flag that he carried on Bloody Sunday in his downtown barbershop. He never let go of the flag during the march, even when being beaten and tear-gassed by police and watching those around him fall to the ground.
Armstrong was jailed alongside his leaders of the struggle and later took the racial struggle to the courtroom, claiming a 1963 victory for the desegregation of Graymont Elementary in Birmingham. His sons, Dwight and Floyd Armstrong, would become the school’s first black students.
James Armstrong’s downtown Birmingham barbershop became a speakeasy for talk of politics and at one point, served as a central location for voter rights education. Because of his connection to progress when white resistance was high, local church members stood guard at Armstrong’s home to protect him from death threats.
Before he passed away in 2009, Armstrong served as a board member and volunteer at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. His grandson, Darren Armstrong, carried on his grandfather’s flag bearing legacy by leading the Bloody Sunday memorial march in Selma with his grandfather’s flag.
Within the walls of the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum lies a replica of the Armstrong Barbershop, in dedication to the Barber of Birmingham, James Armstrong.
NOTE: The Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) will feature the 2011 Academy Award Nominated Documentary by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, “The Barber of Birmingham” about the life of James Armstrong, The film will air Thursday, August 9-10, 2012 on PBS.
See trailer below.