“Dying isn’t the worst thing a man can do. The worst thing a man can do is nothing.” –James Armstrong
The Barber of Birmingham has been nomination for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Short Film. This documentary is a portrait of James Armstrong, barber and foot soldier in the civil rights movement. Armstrong owned and operated Armstrong Barbershop in downtown Birmingham, Alabama for over 50 years. From this vantage point, he met many of the leaders of the movement in Birmingham, including Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a client.
Armstrong was active in the civil rights movement from the beginning. He filed a lawsuit in August 1957 which led to the desegregation of Graymont Elementary in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. His sons, Dwight and Floyd, became the first African-American children to attend that school. During the violent confrontation on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, Armstrong was on the front lines as a flag bearer, and continues to be the flag bearer during the annual commemoration of that march. He also participated in protests to integrate the Greyhound Bus waiting room and stores in downtown Birmingham. The second of these protests resulted in jail time for Armstrong. Over the years, Armstrong continued to cut hair, run his shop, and provide customers and visitors with a history lesson and inspiration at the same time.
The Film and Media Archive assisted the filmmakers with research and provided clips from a documentary about voting rights, Streets of Greenwood, by Jack Willis. Armstrong was also interviewed for Henry Hampton’s ground-breaking series, Eyes on the Prize. The full interview can be read here. When Hampton set out to make Eyes on the Prize, he wanted to interview people like Armstrong, activists who were not famous or well-known, but who were instrumental and vital to the success of the civil rights movement.
View the trailer here: