"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.
If none of this makes sense, that's because it is just a(nother) UAMS money grab.
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