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Thomas Armstrong was in college when he immersed himself in civil rights work, joining Freedom Rides to integrate interstate buses and registering black Mississippi residents to vote, something that came with death threats in the 1960s.
On Monday the 78-year-old Naperville resident challenged students of Naperville Central High School to promote change starting in their own school.
Armstrong was one of three speakers to participate in a program put together as part of a cooperative effort between Naperville School District 203 and longtime civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Jackson was moved to visit the school after a white student at the school last November was charged with a hate crime for posting a “Slave for sale” ad on Craigslist that included a photo of a black classmate.
Jackson promised to return to participate in an event with Naperville Central students but ultimately was unable to attend the panel discussion. The Rev. Janette Wilson, national director of PUSH and Jackson senior adviser, spoke on his behalf.
The third panelist, James Shannon, is Glen Ellyn resident who worked in the Chicago area to promote fair housing. Shannon grew up in Alabama and attended Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he was baptized at age 12 by the church’s pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
District 203 School Board President Kristin Fitzgerald, who was at the session attended by the entire freshman class, said she thought it was a tremendous opportunity for students. “I hope they use this opportunity for action,” she said.
A second session was offered to upperclassmen who wanted to hear the civil rights activists speak.
Armstrong addressed racial incidents occurring in Naperville in 2019, including a gas station attendant telling Hispanic customers to go back where they came from, a multiracial group who was asked to switch tables at a Naperville Buffalo Wild Wings to accommodate a white customer, and black students in Naperville schools reporting being racially bullied by their peers.
“It’s wrong, and no person, no group or community should experience such situations,” said Armstrong, who added he’s thankful the city of Naperville took a stand against such “atrocities.”
“As a 30-year-plus citizen of Naperville, I can truly say that in terms of race relations, Naperville has come a long way in the ranks of racism. But it still has a long way to go,” he said.
Armstrong said students cannot wait for government, principals or other officials to make changes.
“Change always moves from the bottom up, not the top down,” he said. “As an individual, as well as collective body, you must continue to speak out against racism.
“When it comes to speaking up about for unity, diversity and inclusion at this institution, it is you, who with compassion and dignity most importantly, who must take charge. You must let people be heard. You have the power so use your power,” he said.
“I urge you to speak out against discrimination and join forces with your principal, your teachers and other like-minded people and organizations to support victims of hate crimes that might appear on your campus,” Armstrong said. “You can overcome hate. All it takes for good people like you to stand up.”
Armstrong said he was motivated to action because he was tired of the way he and his family were treated.
When he went to buy shoes, he had to sketch his foot on paper and hope the salesman would bring the right size because he was not allowed to try on shoes. His sister and mother weren’t allowed to try on clothes before they were purchased.
Nor could Armstrong sit in the front of the bus or testify against a white person in a trial, he said.
Armstrong said he knew the ninth-graders attending the first session because they were told to be there.
“But you’re here,” he said. “We can’t make you do anything, so what are you going to do?”
That message was carried too by Wilson, who co-founded a law firm and served as a criminal defense attorney for more than 15 years. She left private practice to serve as assistant general counsel for Jackson and Operation PUSH Inc. and ultimately was appointed to serve as PUSH’s national executive director.
Wilson challenged students to be careful with the messaging they post on social media.
“You need to use your social media in a creative way,” Wilson said. “You have the opportunity in social media to change the narrative.”
The world outside the enclave of Naperville is far more diverse, she said.
“You live in a global society,” she said. “The world is more black and brown than Naperville.”
She reminded the students that they might someday be working for boss or company owner who is a person of color.
“What will your generation be remembered for?” Wilson said. “It’s your challenge; it’s your opportunity.”
Three civil rights activists challenged Naperville Central High School students Monday to stand up to racial bullying after a post that has one student facing hate crime charges.
Speakers who have fought for racial equality and worked in fields of criminal defense law, housing rights and religious leadership encouraged freshmen during a panel discussion to speak out against discrimination and to use social media to fight against, rather than perpetuate, stereotypes.
“To the students here, we have a problem,” said Thomas Armstrong of Naperville, a civic educator and consultant who has worked on civil rights causes — including as a Freedom Rider working to integrate buses in the 1960s — since he was a 17-year-old in Mississippi.
The problem, he said, comes from issues such as a Naperville Central student’s Craigslist post in November that showed a picture of a black student with the heading “Slave for Sale (NAPERVILLE),” from the experience of a multiracial group of 18 who were asked to switch seats at a Naperville restaurant because employees told them two white customers did not want to sit near black people, and from students reporting other episodes of race-based bullying.
Change, Armstrong told the students, “always moves from the bottom up.” So he encouraged them to step up and discourage bullying.
“I urge you to speak out against discrimination and join forces with your principal, your teachers and other like-minded people and organizations to support victims of hate crimes that might appear on your campus,” Armstrong said. “You can overcome hate. All it takes is for good people like you to stand up.”
Joining Armstrong on Monday’s panel were James Shannon, a fair housing advocate and pastor of Peoples Community Church in Glen Ellyn, and the Rev. Jeanette Wilson, a criminal defense attorney, senior adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Rainbow PUSH Coalition and pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago.
Jackson himself was scheduled to attend but could not make it because he had to travel to California after a friend’s son died unexpectedly, Wilson said. He may make plans to visit with Naperville students in February for Black History Month, organizers said.
Panelists shared their experiences encountering racism in the past and said Naperville — despite recent episodes — has made progress toward integration, acceptance, diversity and understanding.
Shannon, for example, shared his memory of moving to Glen Ellyn and finding his neighbor across the street unwilling to speak to or acknowledge him and his wife. Other neighbors supported them, and the man across the street eventually apologized and changed from “the neighbor from hell to the neighbor from heaven,” Shannon said.
But the man’s assumptions illustrated the irrationality of racism, he said.
“You cannot get any kind of common sense out of racism,” he said. “It makes no sense.”
Wilson blamed tension among races on “a culture of disregard for all people.” She said young people should find more “creative” ways to use social media. Rather than continuing to be bombarded with “negative images of people of color,” she said teens can post positive images themselves to start changing the tune.
“You are not born with a racist gene,” Wilson said. “You are born into an environment that fuels disconnect. … I hope our discussion will enlighten you, encourage you and inspire you to think of new ways of bridging the divide.”