Favorite

When Louis Armstrong blew his top 

Satchmo's reaction to the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford may have changed the course of the Central High Crisis.

"When I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting on a little colored girl, I think I have a right to get sore.'' The speaker was Louis Armstrong, who on the night of September 17, 1957, was preparing to play with his All Stars in Grand Forks, North Dakota. There was a Grand Forks Nine, too: the nine blacks living in a town (as of 1950) of 26,836. Grand Forks did not figure to be a key front in the civil rights struggle. But this was not all Armstrong had to say that night to a twenty-one-year-old journalism student and jazz buff at the University of North Dakota named Larry Lubenow, who was moonlighting for $1.75 an hour at the Grand Forks Herald.

With Armstrong in town — performing, as it happened, at Grand Forks' own Central High School — Lubenow's editor, an old-timer named Russ Davies, sent him to the Dakota Hotel to see whether he could land an interview. Perhaps sensing trouble — Lubenow was, he now says, a ''rabble-rouser and a liberal'' — Davies laid out the ground rules: ''No politics,'' he ordered. That hardly seemed necessary, for Davies was a very conservative editor at a very Republican paper, and, with his famously sunny, unthreatening disposition, Armstrong rarely ventured into such things anyway. ''I don't get involved in politics,'' he once said. ''I just blow my horn.'' (It wasn't so simple, of course; during his long career Armstrong had broken down innumerable barriers, the latest of which was the ban on black guests at the Dakota Hotel.) But Lubenow had been following the Little Rock story; oddly enough, Federal Judge Ronald Davies (no relation to the editor), who had ordered that the desegregation plan there proceed, was from Grand Forks. And, like everyone else, Lubenow had seen the picture of Elizabeth.

Armstrong's road manager told Lubenow that he couldn't see Satchmo until after the concert. But that wouldn't work: it was past his deadline. So with the connivance of the bartender and bell captain, both of them drinking buddies, Lubenow sneaked into Armstrong's suite masquerading as a bellhop, delivering the trumpeter's room-service lobster dinner. He told Armstrong he'd be fired if he didn't come back with a story. The musician, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, couldn't let that happen. He agreed to talk. And talk he did.

Lubenow stuck initially to his editor's script, asking Armstrong to name his favorite musician. (Bing Crosby, Armstrong replied.) But soon Lubenow brought up Little Rock, and he could not believe Armstrong's angry response. ''It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country,'' he said. Armstrong had been contemplating a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union for the State Department — ''they ain't so cold but what we couldn't bruise them with happy music,'' he'd explained — but now, he confessed to having second thoughts. ''The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,'' he went on, offering further choice words about Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

''The people over there ask me what's wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?'' As he spoke, he got progressively worked up. Eisenhower, he charged, was ''two faced,'' and had ''no guts,'' while Faubus was a ''no-good motherfucker.'' (Writing for a family newspaper, Lubenow somehow turned that into ''uneducated plow boy.'') Armstrong bitterly recounted his experiences touring the Jim Crow South, like the times when whites, including some of the very folks who had just cheered him, rocked his tour bus menacingly when he and his musicians prepared to leave town. He broke out into the opening bar of ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' inserting enough obscenities — ''Oh, say can you motherfucking see / By the motherfucking dawn's early light'' — to prompt the band's vocalist, Velma Middleton, to try to hush him up.

Favorite

Speaking of...

  • Living history

    March 13, 2014
    A friend of The Observer who works at the Arkansas Studies Institute just down the street from the Fortress of Employment sent us a link the other day to what we believe to be some of the most moving home video footage ever shot in the state: a soundless, 2-minute, 42-second clip that has been buried in its archives for a while now. /more/
  • Lee Lorch, a figure in Little Rock's '57 crisis, dies at 98

    March 2, 2014
    The New York Times carried a lengthy obituary yesterday on desegregation activist Lee Lorch, a college teacher whose work in breaking down segregation barriers in Manhattan housing was his lead accomplishment. But he also played a role in the Little Rock school desegregation crisis in 1957. /more/
  • Taylor Swift at Verizon

    October 5, 2011
    Taylor Swift played Verizon Arena last night and Brian Chilson sent a photo from the show. /more/
  • This week's Times: Louis Armstrong and more

    September 28, 2011
    Just in case you don't click the teasers on the page, I want to tout some items in this week's Arkansas Times. /more/
  • Thursday night line

    June 23, 2011
    The line is open. Closing notes: * OBIT POLICIES: An Arkansas gay rights group has stirred up quite a bit of national attention to the policy of the Batesville Guard to list only immediate family in free obituaries, not including unmarried domestic partners. /more/
  • More »

Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • Casting out demons: why Justin Harris got rid of kids he applied pressure to adopt

    Rep. Justin Harris blames DHS for the fallout related to his adoption of three young girls, but sources familiar with the situation contradict his story and paint a troubling picture of the adoption process and the girls' time in the Harris household.
    • Mar 12, 2015
  • Ruth Coker Burks, the cemetery angel

    In the darkest hour of the AIDS epidemic, Ruth Coker Burks cared for hundreds of people whose families had abandoned them. Courage, love and the 30-year secret of one little graveyard in Hot Springs. 
    • Jan 8, 2015
  • A child left unprotected

    State Rep. Justin Harris and his wife adopted a young girl through the state Department of Human Services. How did she, six months later, end up in the care of a man who sexually abused her?
    • Mar 5, 2015

Most Shared

Latest in Cover Stories

  • Arkansas trauma system takes a hit

    Doctors worry about impact of canceled contract with educational arm, loss of funds.
    • Aug 25, 2016
  • The return of Kaleidoscope

    The LGBT Film Festival kicks off in North Little Rock.
    • Aug 17, 2016
  • Seven to watch

    At the Kaleidoscope LGBT Film Festival.
    • Aug 17, 2016
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »

August

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31  

Most Viewed

Most Recent Comments

 

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation