Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alabama Civil Rights Icon Could Not Outlive "Employment Terrorism"

James Armstrong, a central figure in the civil-rights movement, died a few weeks back in Birmingham.

Armstrong, a barber by trade, was best known for his role in a six-year lawsuit that helped end formal school segregation in the Deep South. Armstrong lived to see integrated schools in his native Alabama. But he could not outlive "employment terrorism," a tactic that was used against civil-rights activists in the 1950s and '60s--and still is being used today.

What is employment terrorism? It's a term we use to describe the tactics of corporate and governmental interests who cheat people out of their jobs for daring to stand up to social injustice.

How do we know it still exists? My wife and I both have been the victims of it.

I was cheated out of my job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in May 2008 (after 19 years of service) because I dared to write a blog that was critical of the George W. Bush Justice Department, particularly its handling of the Don Siegelman case. My wife was cheated out of her job at Infinity Property & Casualty Corporation in October 2009, apparently because we had filed a lawsuit against unethical debt collectors.

We figured this vile tactic was relatively new--perhaps something that started in the dark, twisted mind of Karl Rove and his associates. So an article by Stefan Kertesz, one of James Armstrong's regular customers, stopped us in our tracks.

Kertesz writes about the difficult road Armstrong and others faced in trying to end school segregation:

Armstrong's 1957 lawsuit to allow his children to enter Graymont Elementary dragged on for six years. As his first two kids aged, his two youngest, Dwight and Floyd, joined the case. All other plaintiffs had to drop out as they were fired from their jobs. But Armstrong owned his shop. A steady flow of customers allowed him to stay in the case until he won. That's why the shop's chairs, one of which sits in the Civil Rights Institute, are so important.

Mrs. Schnauzer and I were stunned when we read that. We had no idea that some of those who fought on the front line of the civil-rights struggle, had been fired from their jobs--simply for standing up for what was right. We were even more stunned to think that, for all of the progress our nation has made in terms of social justice, this kind of evil still is going on today.

To be sure, the challenges my wife and I now face are minor compared to what James Armstrong and others battled some 50 years ago. Kertesz writes movingly about the spirit that carried Armstrong and others to higher ground:

Part of Armstrong's durability was that he transformed every adversity into strength. Chuckling, he credited Gov. George Wallace and Connor for the civil rights movement's success:

"Thank God for George Wallace. Thank God for Bull Connor. Because they didn't do nothin' but encourage us to keep strong . . . That's that. That's the way I take it, and so both of them gone, and you didn't stop anything!"

For a middle-aged white man raised by immigrants who fled persecution, one of my questions has always been how people survive painful experience and grow to the point of helping others. My parents and my patients have taught me lessons about these things.

But Armstrong went one better: He not only survived adversity to the point of helping others, he thrived on beating it. Grit and humor, and faith, shined through every story he told. And he was one hell of a barber.

A thank you to Stefan Kertesz for educating us about the civil-rights movement. And an extra big thank you to James Armstrong for blazing a trail that contains unfinished business.

Will we someday look back and say, with a chuckle, that we are grateful people like Karl Rove, Leura Canary, Alice Martin, and others helped push us toward justice in America?

May a can-do spirit help us complete the task that James Armstrong so bravely helped to start.


Robby Scott Hill said...

This also explains why the population of my hometown of Boaz, Alabama in Marshall County has tripled from about 5,000 folks to nearly 15,000 since I started school back in 1980.

Most of the adult citizens of Boaz are from another city like Birmingham, Gadsden, Anniston or Huntsville & when they moved here, they kept their jobs in those cities.

We have approximately one dozen Black families in the whole city and the Black Children of Boaz used to be bused to Marshall County High School in Guntersville which was about one mile from the all White Guntersville High School, but that era ended in 1980when I was a first grader and was assigned the task of sitting behind the first Black child to attend Boaz Elementary.

My father was from a mixed race family of Cherokee sharecroppers who had been passing for White and our family was sympathetic to the movement. I was instructed to not join the other kids in name calling or to allow them to persuade me to hit the black child on the back of the head. After a few days of name calling by a couple of children who had been instructed to do so by their parents, Sam Herron was accepted by most of the White children in Boaz and he eventually graduated from Boaz High School along with a few of his cousins.

We have come a long way and still have a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

Divided the conquerors do good work in conquering.

Vi Ransel has written "Cold Case Democracy and the Doctrine of "Corporate Personhood" Part II: Smash and Grab"

Well worth reading.

Also, F.W. Engdahl's interview is worth the time:

I'm coming to the conclusion we need to kick what is called the American government to the curb and govern ourselves.


marty weiss said...

Experience has shown that force hones the opposition and that containment is like a rifle barrel, focusing the threat, or better, like a packed charge, increasing the explosive shock.

Of course, that's fine with shock economics, which promotes crisis, catastrophe, disaster and military destruction.

But as national policy it is counterproductive. The US would do much better for itself and others constructing rather than destructing.

The "war" in Iraq enlarged Al Queda, the war on drugs has created a huge black market, the fight against healthcare reform has energized the Dems, the Vietnam war created a strong Vietnamese government.

And the opposition to government that benefits the public rather than corporations and/or banks, will do the same.