Thomas Armstrong's decision to join the 1961 Freedom Rides secured his place in history as the first Mississippian to do so. His commitment to make a difference and speak out against injustice was reinforced by his experiences as a student at Tougaloo College, where the significance of education to promote transformative change is so well evidenced. An oasis of freedom and intellectual ideals, Tougaloo College continues to prepare its students for lives of meaning and to use their education to effect change in a global economy.
Known as the 'Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi,' Tougaloo College is the place to which people from across America came to devise the strategies to improve race relations in Mississippi. The college becamewithout regard to race, ethnicity, gender, or religionthe safe haven and refuge from the raging storm of racism that permeated the state of Mississippi during that period in history. From the sanctuary of its Woodworth Chapel, strategies were devised to change the social, political, and economic fibers of the state of Mississippi; strategies that would ultimately impact the nation, creating a model for those fighting for democracy worldwide. Such was the influence of a Tougaloo education for the students of that time who were charged with the responsibility to make a difference. From the Tougaloo Nine to the Freedom Riders, the civil rights movement was significantly influenced by the young peoples' engagement.
The youth of today is not much different from those of yesteryear. They want to believe that their generation can also make a difference and are inspired to do so. They, too, are seeking opportunities to grab onto a cause bigger than themselves. Young people became engaged in helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina: they flocked to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast to volunteer at the shelters and to assist with the rebuilding efforts. They became engaged in the presidential campaign of President Barack Obama and voted in record numbers for change. They realized that their votes mattered and they could make a difference.
The lessons of the past must be shared with young people today, to enable them to understand conceptually and contextually the difference each succeeding generation can make, and their responsibility to advance the ideals of a democratic society. Thomas Armstrong's story will inspire them to find their places of impact and influence.
There are valuable lessons to glean from Thomas Armstrong's life as a Freedom Rider and foot soldier for justice and equality. His journey is an example of students' social activism and how it influenced a movement that broke through the walls of segregation, destroyed the barriers of Jim Crow, and gave wings to a movement that resulted in African Americans' rise to full citizenship in the Deep South under the law.
While the highly emotionally charged civil rights era has passed, there are indeed important lessons that are instructive for educators and students today. Along with uncompromising academic preparation, students must also prepared to meet the challenges of informed citizenship, to be sensitive and committed to the issues of justice, and to develop the quality of character that is essential for productive participation in the global society. Autobiography of a Freedom Rider will help encourage and inspire the next generation to continue constructing the path toward a true and inclusive democracy.
Beverly Wade Hogan
President, Tougaloo College