Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks: it’s impossible to forget these heroes of the American Civil Rights movement. Alongside them however, barbers such as Thomas Linton, Nelson Malden and James Armstrong also played an essential role in the anti-segregation movement that shook the USA between 1955 and 1965. At a time when the US is divided several months after the presidential elections, FAB returns to this extraordinary part of world history.
Barbers: On The Frontline Of The Civil Rights Movement
Sat in the chair of his own salon, opened in 1951 in the heart of Tuscaloosa in Alabama, barber Thomas Linton quietly remembers: “We didn’t have the right to go to certain places, nor to say certain things. It was like that all over. We grew up together, but segregation was a fact of daily life.” In the 1960s, his barbershop was the HQ for a boycott that successfully helped African-Americans to find employment in local businesses. And across the USA, he wasn’t alone.
The Democratic Representative for Georgia, John Lewis, also recalls the important role barbers played in training and co-ordinating militants from the Civil Rights movement. In an interview recorded by his current barber, Marvin Church, he remembered:
“during the boycott of public transportation in Montgomery, our carpool was organized in barbershops. I often found myself alongside Martin Luther King in salons all over, from Atlanta to Selma. We went where the people were. We went to the barbershops.” Marvin Church
The Barbershop: A Barricade Against The Jim Crow Laws
The spread of barbershops run by African-Americans was in some way the result of the application of the Jim Crow laws. Adopted by numerous Southern States, such as Alabama and Florida, these laws imposed a segregation of rights in all public places and services. They strongly reduced the places where Black Americans were allowed to go. In this context, the barbershop offered a safe place where Afro-Americans could meet, talk and organize. For Quincy T. Mills, barbershop salons run by Afro-Amercains in majority black neighborhoods “constituted truly safe, private spaces away from the public sphere”.
Many barbers were politically involved in the Civil Rights movement and they provided their clients with magazines from Afro-American associations. That’s how Stokely Carmichael, who went on to become the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, became a Civil Rights activist. When hanging out in his barbershop, he learned about 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education amendment, which declared that segregation in school environments was unconstitutional. Later on he recognized that this founding moment would determine the rest of his career of political activism.
More than 50 years have passed since the Civil Rights Act was approved in 1964. This law put a legal end to racial segregation in the USA, however barbershops have retained their importance in the day-to-day lives of African-Americans. Recently, Barack Obama’s barber told website Complex UK: “Every time he came to the salon, the President took part in the debates we were having. Even when there were guys who spoke just as eloquently as he does!” More proof that the barbershop is still an important, if surprising, backroom of American politics.