[JPL] The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise

Steve Schwartz steve_schwartz at wgbh.org
Sun Sep 23 21:51:54 EDT 2007

The New York Times

September 23, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise

FIFTY years ago this week, all eyes were on Little Rock, Ark., where nine
black students were trying, for the first time, to desegregate a major
Southern high school. With fewer than 150 blacks, the town of Grand Forks,
N.D., hardly figured to be a key front in that battle ‹ until, that is,
Larry Lubenow talked to Louis Armstrong.

On the night of Sept. 17, 1957, two weeks after the Little Rock Nine were
first barred from Central High School, the jazz trumpeter happened to be on
tour with his All Stars band in Grand Forks. Larry Lubenow, meanwhile, was a
21-year-old journalism student and jazz fan at the University of North
Dakota, moonlighting for $1.75 an hour at The Grand Forks Herald.

Shortly before Mr. Armstrong¹s concert, Mr. Lubenow¹s editor sent him to the
Dakota Hotel, where Mr. Armstrong was staying, to see if he could land an
interview. Perhaps sensing trouble ‹ Mr. Lubenow was, he now says, a
³rabble-rouser and liberal² ‹ his boss laid out the ground rules: ³No
politics,² he ordered. That hardly seemed necessary, for Mr. Armstrong
rarely ventured into such things anyway. ³I don¹t get involved in politics,²
he once said. ³I just blow my horn.²

But Mr. Lubenow was thinking about other things, race relations among them.
The bell captain, with whom he was friendly, had told him that Mr. Armstrong
was quietly making history in Grand Forks, as he had done innumerable times
and ways before, by becoming the first black man ever to stay at what was
then the best hotel in town. Mr. Lubenow knew, too, that Grand Forks had its
own link to Little Rock: it was the hometown of Judge Ronald Davies, who¹d
just ordered that the desegregation plan in Little Rock proceed after Gov.
Orval Faubus of Arkansas and a band of local segregationists tried to block

As Mr. Armstrong prepared to play that night ‹ oddly enough, at Grand
Forks¹s own Central High School ‹ members of the Arkansas National Guard
ringed the school in Little Rock, ordered to keep the black students out.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower¹s meeting with Governor Faubus three days
earlier in Newport, R.I., had ended inconclusively. Central High School was
open, but the black children stayed home.

Mr. Lubenow was first told he couldn¹t talk to Mr. Armstrong until after the
concert. That wouldn¹t do. With the connivance of the bell captain, he snuck
into Mr. Armstrong¹s suite with a room service lobster dinner. And Mr.
Armstrong, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, agreed to talk. Mr. Lubenow
stuck initially to his editor¹s script, asking Mr. Armstrong to name his
favorite musician. (Bing Crosby, it turned out.) But soon he brought up
Little Rock, and he could not believe what he heard. ³It¹s getting almost so
bad a colored man hasn¹t got any country,² a furious Mr. Armstrong told him.
President Eisenhower, he charged, was ³two faced,² and had ³no guts.² For
Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly
unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: ³uneducated plow boy.²
The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong¹s.

Mr. Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim
Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of ³The Star-Spangled Banner,²
inserting obscenities into the lyrics and prompting Velma Middleton, the
vocalist who toured with Mr. Armstrong and who had joined them in the room,
to hush him up.

Mr. Armstrong had been contemplating a good-will tour to the Soviet Union
for the State Department. ³They ain¹t so cold but what we couldn¹t bruise
them with happy music,² he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having
second thoughts. ³The way they are treating my people in the South, the
government can go to hell,² he said, offering further choice words about the
secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. ³The people over there ask me what¹s
wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?²

Mr. Lubenow, who came from a small North Dakota farming community, was
shocked by what he heard, but he also knew he had a story; he skipped the
concert and went back to the paper to write it up. It was too late to get it
in his own paper; nor would the Associated Press editor in Minneapolis,
dubious that Mr. Armstrong could have said such things, put it on the
national wire, at least until Mr. Lubenow could prove he hadn¹t made it all
up. So the next morning Mr. Lubenow returned to the Dakota Hotel and, as Mr.
Armstrong shaved, had the Herald photographer take their picture together.
Then Mr. Lubenow showed Mr. Armstrong what he¹d written. ³Don¹t take nothing
out of that story,² Mr. Armstrong declared. ³That¹s just what I said, and
still say.² He then wrote ³solid² on the bottom of the yellow copy paper,
and signed his name.

The article ran all over the country. Douglas Edwards and John Cameron
Swayze broadcast it on the evening news. The Russians, an anonymous
government spokesman warned, would relish everything Mr. Armstrong had said.
A radio station in Hattiesburg, Miss., threw out all of Mr. Armstrong¹s
records. Sammy Davis Jr. criticized Mr. Armstrong for not speaking out
earlier. But Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt
and Marian Anderson quickly backed him up.

Mostly, there was surprise, especially among blacks. Secretary Dulles might
just as well have stood up at the United Nations and led a chorus of the
Russian national anthem, declared Jet magazine, which once called Mr.
Armstrong an ³Uncle Tom.² Mr. Armstrong had long tried to convince people
throughout the world that ³the Negro¹s lot in America is a happy one,² it
observed, but in one bold stroke he¹d pulled nearly 15 million American
blacks to his bosom. Any white confused by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr.¹s polite talk need only listen to Mr. Armstrong, The Amsterdam News
declared. Mr. Armstrong¹s words had the ³explosive effect of an H-bomb,²
said The Chicago Defender. ³He may not have been grammatical, but he was

His road manager quickly put out that Mr. Armstrong had been tricked, and
regretted his statements, but Mr. Armstrong would have none of that. ³I said
what somebody should have said a long time ago,² he said the following day
in Montevideo, Minn., where he gave his next concert. He closed that show
with ³The Star-Spangled Banner² ‹ this time, minus the obscenities.

Mr. Armstrong was to pay a price for his outspokenness. There were calls for
boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a
Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn¹s
manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve
Allen¹s talk show.

But it didn¹t really matter. On Sept. 24, President Eisenhower sent 1,200
paratroopers from the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, and the next day
soldiers escorted the nine students into Central High School. Mr. Armstrong
exulted. ³If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored
kids, take me along, Daddy,² he wired the president. ³God bless you.² As for
Mr. Lubenow, who now works in public relations in Cedar Park, Tex., he got
$3.50 for writing the story and, perhaps, for changing history. But his
editor was miffed ‹ he¹d gotten into politics, after all. Within a week, he
left the paper.

David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of
³Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink.¹¹

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