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Freedom Rider Recalls Passage Of Civil Rights Act

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Derrick Blakley Derrick Blakley
Derrick Blakley is a general assignment reporter for CBS 2...
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(CBS) – 50 years ago Wednesday, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and with a stroke of a pen, equal treatment for African-Americans became law.

But the law may not have become reality without pressure from defiant young college students, known as freedom riders.

CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley has the story of a local man who risked his life for freedom.

Thomas Armstrong is 72 now and lives in Naperville. He grew up in segregated Mississippi but somehow found the courage to push for change, even under threat of death.

On this day, in 1964, after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, Armstrong says he could feel a burden lifted.

“It made our lives much easier. We even felt freer,” said Armstrong.

But without the courage of young people like Armstrong, then a student at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, it may never have happened.

“We knew that was something we had to do,” said Armstrong.

Starting in 1958, under leadership of Medgar Evers, Armstrong began registering Mississippi blacks to vote.

“People were being killed for doing that,” Armstrong said.

By 1961, busloads of college students known as freedom riders headed south, defying Jim Crow laws, suffering beatings and KKK ambushes.

“We watched freedom riders being beaten in Birmingham on their way in to Jackson, Mississippi,” said Armstrong.

“We were afraid that once they arrived in Jackson, Mississippi they were all going to be killed…we thought the only thing we could do as students to help them was to get into jail with them, then maybe they wouldn’t kill everybody.”

But police wouldn’t let Armstrong board the bus for New Orleans in Jackson. Instead, he was arrested, threatened and interrogated for three days.

“Simple, stupid questions, are you a communist? Who sent you here? What communist party group do you belong to?”

He was released, but after that point, the Klan was on his trail. He fled Mississippi, relocated first in Kansas City and eventually here Illinois.

Armstrong says, he’s proud of progress made, but the battle for equality isn’t over, it’s simply changed.

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