Armstrong had generally tried to avoid talking politics during his career and while he quietly broke racial barriers (staying at the nicest ‘white’ hotels in town) he was called an ‘Uncle Tom’ by some. One day in North Dakota that changed – when a 21 year old rookie reporter snuck into Armstrong’s hotel room by impersonating room service. Armstrong shared his disgust and frustration with the government’s treatment of blacks, giving his candid opinion of President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles and singing an obscene version of the Star Spangled Banner. Later, after soldiers were ordered to escort children into school in Little Rock and elsewhere, Armstrong sent a message to Eisenhower reading, “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.”
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. Armstrong’s concert, Mr. Lubenow’s 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 “rabble-rouser and liberal” — his boss laid out the ground rules: “No politics,” he ordered. That hardly seemed necessary, for Mr. Armstrong rarely ventured into such things anyway. “I don’t get involved in politics,” he once said. “I just blow my horn.”
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, who’d 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 it.
As Mr. Armstrong prepared to play that night — oddly enough, at Grand Forks’s 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. Eisenhower’s 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 couldn’t talk to Mr. Armstrong until after the concert. That wouldn’t do. With the connivance of the bell captain, he snuck into Mr. Armstrong’s 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 editor’s 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. “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” a furious Mr. Armstrong told him. President Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced,” and had “no guts.” For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: “uneducated plow boy.” The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong’s.
Mr. Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” 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. “They ain’t so cold but what we couldn’t bruise them with happy music,” he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having second thoughts. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said, offering further choice words about the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”
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 hadn’t 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 he’d written. “Don’t take nothing out of that story,” Mr. Armstrong declared. “That’s just what I said, and still say.” He then wrote “solid” 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. Armstrong’s 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 “Uncle Tom.” Mr. Armstrong had long tried to convince people throughout the world that “the Negro’s lot in America is a happy one,” it observed, but in one bold stroke he’d pulled nearly 15 million American blacks to his bosom. Any white confused by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s polite talk need only listen to Mr. Armstrong, The Amsterdam News declared. Mr. Armstrong’s words had the “explosive effect of an H-bomb,” said The Chicago Defender. “He may not have been grammatical, but he was eloquent.”
His road manager quickly put out that Mr. Armstrong had been tricked, and regretted his statements, but Mr. Armstrong would have none of that. “I said what somebody should have said a long time ago,” he said the following day in Montevideo, Minn., where he gave his next concert. He closed that show with “The Star-Spangled Banner” — 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 Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.
But it didn’t 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. “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy,” he wired the president. “God bless you.” 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 — he’d gotten into politics, after all. Within a week, he left the paper. David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink.’’