James Armstrong, one of the most respected leaders in the fight for voting rights during the racially turbulent ’60s, died Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. He was 86. His family told National Public Radio that he died from heart failure.
Armstrong, who helped orchestrate sit-ins and sued districts to integrate schools during the Civil Rights Movement, was at the head of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. That infamous event, in which Armstrong carried the American flag, became known as Bloody Sunday because of the violence perpetrated against the peaceful protestors by the Alabama state troopers.
During the march, Armstrong dropped to his knees, but he never let the flag hit the ground, according to witnesses. “The struggle galvanized national support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” NPR reports.
For more than a half-century, Armstrong ran a barbershop in Birmingham, where he was also involved in the human rights struggle throughout his life.
"I was always involved, always going to jail, always in the newspaper," Armstrong told NPR's David Gilkey on Election Day 2008. "If you want a voice, you want things to be better, you have to vote. ... I don't come to work until I vote, makes no difference how long the line is. I vote first."
People of his parents’ generation never got the opportunity to vote, he said. "I never heard my Daddy talk about voting. I never heard my Mama talk about voting," he said.