2010-03-03 / Features

Louis Armstrong Broke Silence On Civil Rights In 1957


Louis Armstrong’s private office in his Corona home remains the way he left it in 1971. Behind his desk is the reel-to-reel recorder which Armstrong used to record 650 audiotapes. The appears as it did at the time of Lucille’s death in 1983. Louis Armstrong’s private office in his Corona home remains the way he left it in 1971. Behind his desk is the reel-to-reel recorder which Armstrong used to record 650 audiotapes. The appears as it did at the time of Lucille’s death in 1983. Black History Month was celebrated at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, 34-56 107th St., Corona, with house tours,

Armstrong’s contributions to the civil rights movement and a rare glimpse into how the jazz legend really felt about race relations in America.

Armstrong, a renowned trumpet player and singer, was also a goodwill ambassador, movie star, prolific writer and collage artist. For many years, however, “the Father of Jazz” kept silent on the issues of race. He never marched or made appearances with civil rights leaders. When criticized for not taking any public stand Armstrong would simply reply, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.”

Photos Jason D. Antos Photos Jason D. Antos In September 1957, Armstrong first spoke publicly about race relations in America. During that month, the entire country’s attention was on Little Rock, Arkansas, where state Governor Orval Faubus and a band of local segregationists were defying a Supreme Court ruling desegregating the city’s Central High School.

Two weeks after nine black students, known as the “Little Rock Nine”, were first barred from the high school, the jazz trumpeter was on tour with his band, The All Stars, in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Larry Lubenow, a 21-year-old reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, was assigned to interview Armstrong at the Dakota Hotel on the night of Sept. 17, 1957, shortly before a jazz concert. Lubenow’s boss laid out some ground rules that strictly prohibited any discussion of politics with Armstrong, the first black man to stay at what was then the best hotel in town.

Lubenow was first told that he couldn’t talk to Armstrong until after the concert. Eager for a story, with the help of a hotel porter he sneaked into Armstrong’s suite, posing as a room service waiter, complete with a lobster dinner. The reporter revealed himself to Armstrong who granted him an interview. Within minutes Lubenow brought up Little Rock. “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” Armstrong said. President Dwight Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced”, and had “no guts”. As for Faubus, Armstrong called him an “uneducated plow boy”.

Armstrong also recounted some of his experiences performing in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, inserting obscenities into the lyrics.

At that time, Armstrong had been contemplating a goodwill tour to the Soviet Union on behalf of the State Department. He would go on to can- cel the tour.

“People over there are going to ask me what’s wrong with my country,” Armstrong said. “What am I supposed to say?”

For approval Lubenow showed Armstrong what he had written.

“Don’t take nothing out of that story,” Armstrong declared. “That’s just what I said, and still say.” He then wrote “solid” on the bottom of the story and signed his name.

The article ran all over the country and reaction was swift. A radio station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi threw out all of Armstrong’s records. Sammy Davis Jr. criticized his fellow entertainer for not speaking out earlier; however, Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Marian Anderson quickly backed him up.

Armstrong was also attacked in the press. Jet Magazine called him an “Uncle Tom”, while the Amsterdam News declared, “Mr. Armstrong’s words had the explosive effect of an H-bomb,”

“I said what somebody should have said a long time ago,” Armstrong said.

He was to pay a price for his outspokenness. There were calls for boycotts of his concerts and the Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Armstrong was to appear.

The FBI tracked Armstrong's activity after his cancellation of the Russian tour and because of his public call for change.

On September 24, Eisenhower sent 1,200 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne into Little Rock and the next day soldiers escorted the nine students into Central H.S.

“If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy,” Armstrong wrote in a letter to Eisenhower. “God bless you.”

Despite the attention and praise Lubenow’s article received, his boss, angry because the young reporter had disobeyed his order to avoid raising the issue of politics, fired him a week later.

Armstrong also expressed his feelings on segregation and race during a live television special in 1963 when he sang, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”. The message was simple, yet powerful.

After the lecture on Armstrong and the civil rights movement, visitors toured the house. Armstrong moved to Corona with his wife Lucille in 1943. The couple would spend the rest of their lives in the two-story house that Armstrong called his “Little Pad”. Everything is preserved exactly the way it looked after Lucille died in 1983, with virtually all possessions still in their places including linens folded neatly in the hall closet. The kitchen features all the original appliances. Visitors get the impression that Louis and Lucille are due home any minute.

Born in 1901, the New Orleans-raised Armstrong is buried in Flushing Cemetery. His death in 1971 was felt by the entire world. “I remember my father, an avid Louis Armstrong fan, crying in the car after learning of his death over the radio,” Tour Guide MacKerrow Talcott said.

The residence is a National Historic Landmark, administered by Queens College. The Louis Armstrong Educational Fund provides financial support for the museum.

The museum is currently featuring the exhibit Satchmo’s Stuff: Highlights from the Museum Collections now through 2011.

All records and personal documents were removed from the house after 1983 and now constitute the Louis Armstrong Archives, located on the campus of Queens College. The archives contain a vast personal collection of 650 homemade reel-toreel audiotapes, photographs, correspondence and more.

Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker is set to direct a biopic about Armstrong titled, “What A Wonderful World”, as well as an HBO mini series produced by Quincy Jones. The Armstrong House Museum will play a major role in these events.

For more information, visit www.louisarmstronghouse.org or call 718- 478-8274.

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