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Foot Soldiers for Democracy

By: Horace Huntley and John W. McKerley, eds.
Reviewed by: Ruth Beaumont Cook
University of Illinois Press, 2009
$75, Hardcover; $25, Paper

James Armstrong served his country during World War II, landing at Normandy Beach. “Fear leaves you,” he said of that experience. “You think about what you are trying to do, and you just move forward filled with faith.”

After the war, Armstrong used the GI bill to become a barber. He also became a registered voter—not an easy accomplishment for an African-American in Birmingham at that time. They gave him a long sheet to study, but the questions they asked were not on the sheet. The registrar turned him down one day because he couldn’t say how many seeds are in a watermelon, another day because he didn’t know how many windows the courthouse had. On his third trip, they asked him to name an Alabama senator, and he knew the answer—John Sparkman, but he couldn’t give Sparkman’s address. The registrar told him not to come back for six months. Armstrong was back within a week. He finally passed, and he just kept moving forward with his faith.

Horace Huntley, assistant professor of history at UAB, is director of the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. He and John McKerley, assistant editor with the Freedman and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, chose twenty-nine strikingly personal reminiscences from the Civil Rights Movement for this collection. These oral histories open unique windows on the movement in Birmingham and the many unlikely “soldiers” who surprised even themselves—kitchen table conversations, agonizing decisions about participation, gut level determination, and fear for the children and youth who became a vital part of the process.

James Armstrong and his family were steadfast participants in the efforts to desegregate Graymont Elementary School. Armstrong was put in jail for integrating the Greyhound Bus Station and for sitting at the lunch counter in Newberry’s. Being threatened was “an every night thing” for him, and he lost customers who feared his barbershop would be bombed. Someone at the Birmingham jail once asked him when he was going to stop showing up there. Armstrong answered, “Well, if you get things straight, I don’t have to come.”

James Armstrong’s story is just one of these compelling narratives. Among the others are the stories of Emma Smith Young, James Summerville, and Carolyn Maull McKinstry. They all involve ordinary people who chose to face down insults and violence in simple yet extraordinary ways to achieve the basics of human rights that many Americans hardly give a second thought. May 2010

Narrative historian Ruth Beaumont Cook is a member of the Alabama Writers’ Forum Board of Directors.

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