‘The Barber of Birmingham’

Published 11:26 pm Friday, March 4, 2011

James Armstrong -- Submitted

On Nov. 2, 2008, 88-year-old Dallas County native and barber, James Armstrong, witnessed a monumental moment he will never forget: the election of the first African-American president, President Barack Obama.

At the crack of dawn, an eager Armstrong got into his burgundy Electra 225 and headed for the polls.

“I’d never thought I’d see this day,” Armstrong said as he stood in line on a cold Election Day.

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Directed by Academy Award nominated and Sundance award winner, Gail Dolgin and co-directed by Robin Fryday, “The Barber of Birmingham” documentary chronicles the life of Armstrong who lived during the civil rights era. A Selma showing of the film will premiere at the Bridge Crossing Jubilee Film Festival, Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Larry D. Striplin Jr. Performing Arts Center.

Fryday and modern day foot soldier Shirley Gavin Floyd, will attend the screening Saturday.

“It’s a great honor to be able to tell this story through film,” Fryday. “Being in Selma at this time is very important and it means this screening will have a greater impact and reach a larger audience.”

Armstrong, who is now deceased, was born April 27, 1923. He first started cutting hair as an apprentice in the U.S. Army and eventually owned his own barbershop in Birmingham. Armstrong has seen the likes of many foot soldiers and activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., whose hair he cut three times.

Armstrong’s witty sense of humor and laid-back demeanor is what makes him loved by many.

“I love this country, I love Alabama and I love Birmingham. If I die in Birmingham I know I will go to heaven because I caught hell here,” Armstrong joked.

Hundreds of pictures and newspaper clippings of the movement and an American flag adorn the shop’s walls, inviting customers to take a visual journey through history as they got their hair trimmed, shaved or clipped. Armstrong said people would stand outside of his shop’s windows to watch the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and white customers get their haircuts.

In September 1963, shortly after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Armstrong’s two sons, Dwight and Floyd tried to integrate Birmingham’s Graymont Elementary School. While making the trek to the front of the school, Alabama State Troopers guarded the front entrance and the children were jeered at and spat on. The Armstrong boys didn’t fight back; they just walked in silence.

“Back then, if you could take it, you could make it,’” James Armstrong said.

Armstrong died in November 2009. He went to his grave satisfied that history was made. Armstrong’s children and grandchildren will march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in his stead and carry his flag Sunday.