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The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement     cover photo

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement 2011


Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday
Directed by Gail Dogan and Robin Fryday
DVD , color, 88 min.

High School - General Adult
African American History, Civil Rights, Social Justice

Date Entered: 07/30/2015

Reviewed by Timothy W. Kneeland, History and Political Science Department, Nazareth College of Rochester, Rochester, NY

“Dying isn’t the worst thing a man can do, worse thing a man can do is live for nothing.” Thus sums up the philosophy of this absorbing documentary about James Armstrong, also known as the Barber of Birmingham, a foot soldier who achieved civil rights for all Americans. Filmed in 2008 and 2009, the story vividly captures Armstrong’s delight at the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama, whose victory secured the dream that Armstrong had his entire life - to see an African American elected president.

James Armstrong was a civil rights pioneer who operated a small barbershop in Birmingham, Alabama. He was, until now, one of the thousands of unsung participants in the struggle for black equality and the right to vote. The film provides a glimpse at the struggle and cost of civil rights for Armstrong’s family. He was arrested half a dozen times as were his wife and children. His children were in the first desegregated class in Birmingham and had to exhibit grace under pressure. Armstrong was one of the participants in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March of 1965. The marchers were set upon by state and local authorities and helped bring attention to the need for the Voting Rights Act which was signed into law August of 1965. During the march he carried an American flag, a proud emblem of his struggle to liberate all Americans, black and white, from the oppression of racism and segregation. Years later, reflecting on the struggle he showed no bitterness toward his oppressors.

Documentarians Gail Dogan and Robin Fryday effectively use interviews with Armstrong’s family and friends and archival footage from the civil rights era to contextualize Armstrong’s story. At 26 minutes, the film would be a useful addition to a high school or college classroom studying racism, social justice, or the civil rights movement.