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Barber On Front Lines Of Civil Rights Battles


Now we're going to talk about an important struggle in this country. We often talk about everyday heroes, people who, with no special credentials and no recognition, do remarkable things. Our next guest found someone like that and decided to make a film about him.

The film is called "The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement." It follows the story of James Armstrong, whose barber shop became something of a hub for the civil rights movement. When Mr. Armstrong wasn't cutting the hair of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or giving organizers a place to plan marches, he was battling segregation in the city's schools and pushing for voting rights.


JAMES ARMSTRONG: I've always thought when I was growing up the worst thing a man can do is nothing. I got a lot of pictures of everybody in here that was doing something. When we started to struggle, by joining the struggle, I remember some terrible days. Things are changing. I said, a black man is president of the United States. I mean, you say that to yourself.

MARTIN: "The Barber of Birmingham" - which was nominated for an Oscar, by the way - premieres tonight on PBS, and it streams online until September 9th. And filmmaker Robin Fryday is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ROBIN FRYDAY: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

MARTIN: What led you to want to make this film? And, of course, I want to know how you found James Armstrong.

FRYDAY: This is actually my first film, and I live in the Bay area and, as we were heading into the election of '08, I started to think to myself about the people who brought us to this day. I was particularly interested in the unsung heroes, the foot soldiers who many of us do not know about. And so I decided to take a trip to Birmingham and do some research and make a documentary, because I felt it was so important to put faces to these people and to recognize them for the work that they had done, and to remember their stories.

MARTIN: And how did you find Mr. Armstrong?

FRYDAY: I went to the Civil Rights Institute, and I went to the Civil Rights Activist Committee, and people started introducing me to different foot soldiers. And then somebody said to me, have you met the barber? So I took a trip to Mr. Armstrong's barbershop, and I was outside the shop looking in. Mr. Armstrong was sitting in his chair and with a big smile on his face. And I took one look around his shop, and every inch of space of his shop - which had been there since the early 1950s, but was covered with memorabilia from the Civil Rights Movement.

And Mr. Armstrong was wearing his bowtie and his plaid pants and waving me to come in. And I ended up spending hours talking to Mr. Armstrong and listening to his personal stories of how he integrated his sons into the all-white Graymont Elementary School, and he was the one who carried the original flag on Bloody Sunday in the march from Selma to Montgomery.

And, after learning about how he dedicated his life to the fight for civil rights, I decided that he would be the person to represent all of the thousands of foot soldiers.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things I think that, you know, makes the film memorable is that, you know, we hear about the big moments like the law suits. He first filed suit to get his sons into the school - which was his neighborhood school, by the way. It was, like, around the corner from his house, and yet his kids had to be bussed, you know, across town to go to the all-black school.

It's that they actually - once they achieved these milestones, they actually had to live with it. OK. And I just want to play a short clip from the film where you talk about one of his sons, Floyd, about what it was like when he actually went to that school.


FLOYD ARMSTRONG: We had to be exemplary. They were telling us, if you don't do it, it's going to fail because they're going to say, ah-ha, we told you. They cannot be educated with white kids. So we had to not fight back. We had to not do things that would get us suspended from school or expelled, or anything like that.

I was nine years old. I remember someone spit on me, and I turned back around, and nobody would say anything and everybody just laughed. Those kinds of things occurred.

FRYDAY: A little bit of the history about that lawsuit. Mr. Armstrong began that lawsuit in 1957 with his two older children, and there were eight families who started that lawsuit. One by one, each of those families dropped out because of the risks to their families and to their work and the threats that they received. Mr. Armstrong was the only one who stayed the distance. And he stuck it out and, six years later, when his two younger sons Floyd and Dwight were now entering into that school, they became the first ones to integrate. By that time, his older children had already moved on to high school.

They moved into the neighborhood they lived in. They were the first African-American family to move into an all-white neighborhood, so they were receiving many threats. Their dog had been poisoned to death. They had a guard sitting on their doorstep. And Mr. Armstrong felt there was a school right around the corner. Why should his children have to be bussed to another school? Why should they not be able to attend the school that's right around the corner? And so that's what they did.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're hearing about the Oscar-nominated short documentary, "The Barber of Birmingham." It follows the story of civil rights activist and barber, James Armstrong. Our guest is the co-director of the film, Robin Fryday.

One of the bittersweet things about this film, if you don't mind my mentioning it, is that after all that he did and all that he achieved, he didn't get to see the film completed. Did he? But did he get to see Barack Obama - he did get to see Barack Obama elected president of the United States.

FRYDAY: He did see him elected. He did cast his vote for - in that election. What happened during the inauguration - we were actually supposed to be on a bus trip that was organized by Shirley Gavin Floyd of the Civil Rights Activist Committee, and she was taking 40 foot soldiers to the inauguration. Mr. Armstrong was supposed to be on that bus.

Gail - my co-director - and I had been preparing to be on that bus to take him. We knew it was very cold in Washington, so we were preparing a lot of warm clothing and food for Mr. Armstrong. And the morning that the bus was - or the day before, I'm sorry - that the bus was leaving, we went to go bring these things to Mr. Armstrong and some food to him, and we found him in congestive heart failure. We ended up taking him to the emergency room. That's where he stayed through the inauguration. So, unfortunately, he did not make it on that bus trip.

MARTIN: And the other bittersweet aspect of this is that your co-filmmaker, Gail, passed away. This was her last film.

FRYDAY: Gail and I met, ironically, through a hairdresser, and Gail knew it would be her last film. She was in the late stages of breast cancer. She was very, very passionate about this project, though, and she passed away in October of 2010.

MARTIN: Mr. Armstrong wasn't able to see the finished film, either, sadly, although he did get to see, like, a rough cut. Right? An early cut of the film?

FRYDAY: He did and I have...


FRYDAY: I have a cute story about that, because I took this sample that Gail and I had created, I took it to Mr. Armstrong's house, took it with my laptop. He watched it, and I saw tears come to his eyes. And he was pointing out all of the people that he knew and he had worked with and he had struggled with. He said, this is my life's work. He had never seen a laptop computer, so he didn't know what this machine was. But he knew that it carried his story, and he wanted - he was asking me, you know, how much for this, just to leave it here, so he could keep watching it over and over. So it was a very touching moment.

MARTIN: Robin Fryday is the co-director of the Oscar-nominated short documentary, "The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement." The film premieres tonight on PBS, although you'll probably want to check your local listings for exact times. You can also stream it online until September 9th. And Robin Fryday is with us from member station KALW in San Francisco, California.

Robin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FRYDAY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.