Riding For Change

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thomas Armstrong remembers his arrest inJackson for taking part in a civil rights protest.

    It was 1961 and Armstrong was a student at Tougaloo College. Withthree others, the Jefferson Davis County native walked into the”whites only” waiting area of a Jackson bus station to participatein a freedom ride protest action.

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    “Chief of Police James Ray was there, and he told us to leave,”Armstrong recalled.

    The four of them did not leave and were arrested.

    Armstrong described his experience Friday at the Lincoln CountyPublic Library where he was to discuss and sign copies of his book,”Autobiography of a Freedom Rider.” The book was co-written byArmstrong and Natalie Bell, a journalist from New York.

    “We want to generate conversation about the contributions of bothblack and white Mississippians to the civil rights movement,” saidBell, who accompanied Armstrong on the book tour.

    Armstrong’s concern with social justice and civil rights beganwhile living in his hometown of Lucas, a black community of about100 families near Prentiss.

    “I guess I became concerned about conditions of blacks and whitesin Jefferson Davis County when I was 13,” Armstrong said.

    Armstrong’s 13-year-old concern transformed into action hisfreshman year at Tougaloo College. Armstrong attended a “massmeeting” in Jackson and heard Medgar Evers, field secretary for theNAACP, speak.

    Evers began to read the names of black voters arbitrarily strickenfrom the rolls.

    “When he said the names from Jefferson Davis County, I realizedsome of them were relatives of mine,” Armstrong said. “I felt nochoice but to volunteer.”

    After that night, Armstrong became actively involved with effortsto get more blacks registered to vote. He said ensuring blackparticipation in the electoral process was a vital step.

    “We felt the only way out of what we called bondage was to vote inthe system,” Armstrong said.

    Armstrong’s story represented more than a professional project andresonated personally for Bell, who has family from Prentiss.

    “It was gratifying to learn of our community’s connection to thecivil rights movement,” Bell said.

    She gained new insight into the way her family was forced to livefor many years.

    “My mom didn’t talk about those times. There was a lot of fear anda lot of trauma,” Bell said. “I learned a lot from working withThomas.”

    In return for what she learned and gained, Bell helped Armstrongbring a longtime project to completion.

    Armstrong’s family first spoke to him about writing his experiencesinto a book and the idea stayed with him until he did begin towrite. Drafting the initial manuscript took about two years.

    When Armstrong met Bell while researching his family history, shetook what he had written and altered it into a narrative form.

    Armstrong described the experiences relayed through the book as”many years ago.” But those many years have not dulled hiscompulsion to reach out and work to accomplish positive change.

    Armstrong wants to encourage young people to take action as he andothers did, and he also promotes civic engagement programs inschools. Armstrong believes leadership training should be animportant part of school curriculum.

    He hopes the book will act as another means toward the goal ofengaged youth.

    “I was barely 17 when I got involved with the movement,” Armstrongsaid. “I’m hoping young people will read and see what other youngpeople were able to do.”