60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong appeared on “Crescendo,” an episode of DuPont’s “Show of the Month.” It’s not one of Armstrong’s most famous TV appearances but perhaps it should be. 10 days earlier, Armstrong’s career was on the rocks because of his comments over the high school integration crisis in Little Rock. I commemorated those comments on the anniversary and was going to leave it there.
But then the division in this country exploded over the weekend due to a series of NFL players protesting racial injustice by kneeling during “The Star Spangled Banner.” The sight of mostly African-Americans protesting made many folks’s heads to explode--including our President’s. “How dare these rich black athletes disrespect the flag?” came the shouts of many. It was no surprise to anyone following the reaction of white people to black people protesting for the past 60 years, many of whom take the position of “Sit down and shut up.”
Jelani Cobb of “The New Yorker” picked up on the similarities to how much of white America responded when Louis Armstrong criticized the government and the President and wrote a powerful piece, “From Louis Armstrong to the N.F.L.: Ungrateful As The New Uppity.” Cobb opened with a paragraph about Armstrong and Little Rock that was dead on but really just scratched the surface. Numerous Facebook friends shared the article with me or tagged me so I knew I should respond.
10 years ago, David Margolick wrote a definitive piece in the New York Times after discovering Larry Lubenow, the young reporter who got Armstrong to speak out on Little Rock during a stop in Grand Forks, North Dakota on September 17, 1957. Lubenow revealed that after Armstrong told stories of dealing with 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.” Armstrong wouldn’t hush up and when his comments appeared in papers across world on September 19, all hell broke loose.
I did my best to detail some of the resulting hell in my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. But really, I, too, just scratched the surface. Six years after its publication, it’s now possible to access more newspapers and other original sources online than ever before. So I wanted to dig deeper than ever to chronicle the reaction to Armstrong’s stance. There was no social media back then and no Twitter; but there were newspaper editorials and Letters to the Editor and reading the sentiments of some of them 60 years later is eerily similar to the comments section of many news articles in 2017. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The story of the “Little Rock Nine” began on September 4, 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent in the National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from integrating Little Rock Central High School for the first time. The drama played out on national television as mobs of white people gathered to scream and curse at the students.
Armstrong’s comments to Lubenow took place on September 17 but he was not exactly silent in the intervening two weeks. Armstrong followed the Little Rock situation intently and and finally couldn’t remain silent after watching the mob scene turn violent. At the Louis Armstrong House Museum is a reel-to-reel tape with interviews Armstrong conducted in Spokane, Washington on September 8 and in Edmonton, Canada on September 10. Armstrong wrote on the tape box in green ink, “A Special Reel Continued.” He knew this was important.
Both interviews were done for radio broadcast but neither made headlines. Here’s a rough transcription of some of the Spokane interview, which has never been published:
Announcer: Louie, I want to get away from music just a moment, not because I want to but because there’s another subject which is more on the serious side and of course, you’ve heard about the publicity about the integration problems in the south and right now, especially in Arkansas. I think I know but what’s your reaction to that?
Louis: Well, I think it’s a damn shame for people to be so deceitful and two-faced. I mean, that Governor, I mean, I bet you right now, he’s got a little colored mammy there nursing his baby. You know what I mean? Why would he want to do all that—you know, some people will cut their right arm off for publicity and that’s all I think he’s doing. Deep in his heart, I bet he’s not that cruel. You know? And the people that agree with him, every one of them has got some colored woman, sitting there, eating their food and everything else. They love ‘em. There ain’t a white man in the South that don’t have a colored man he’s crazy about. So when you see those things like that, I just sum it up, I say, well, it’s one of them okey-doke’s, that’s all it is. That’s the slang way of saying it’s a shame. I mean, we’re going to have to go through that all of our lives—now we’ll play, go right down there now, he’ll be the first one to applaud our music.
Announcer: Do you think that things will pick up down there?
Louis: Well, it’s got to because the nation alone, I mean, this guy there is so cold-blooded, it’s a shame just to keep it up, they can’t stand it. I mean, how can they rest well at night, thinking they have to go through that tomorrow.? The kids, they’re only doing what their parents told them. They wouldn’t do it.
Announcer: Well, have you any idea, Louie, is this growing pains of the United States? Do you think we’ll grow out of this thing?
Louis: I think we will because it’s much better than it was 10 years ago, you know, but why do we have to suffer so much for people to realize we’re all right, you know what I mean? The government trusts everybody but the spades—I mean, the colored people—I mean, I don’t know why but when they throw us in there, we throw our heart in it and everything cause we’re just doing it for our country. And when we look around at this fellow that he trust you, that's the one that will stick you in the back with a dagger.
Announcer: Well, it seems, Louie, that, anyway on the musical level, we tend to be equal.
Louis: That's what I mean. Everything that we play is for our country, that's the way I look at it. That's right. If I go to Canada and play 'God Save the Queen,' I play 'The Star Spangled Banner right behind it, you understand?
Announcer: Louie, very well put and I thank you very much for talking with me today. Louie Satchmo Armstrong.
Armstrong continued the same line of thinking in Edmonton two days later, but seemed to catch the interviewer off guard, who changed the subject soon after Armstrong made it clear he was not happy. “You can't smile through all that,” Armstrong said. “So you know I'm not laughing today. I don't feel so good about that mess.”
Seven days later, without any change in the “mess” in Little Rock, Armstrong found himself exploding to Lubenow. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” Armstrong erupted. He called Governor Faubus a “motherfucker,” which Lubenow changed to “uneducated plow boy” in the final version. President Eisenhower “two faced” and had “no guts” in letting Faubus control the situation. For a couple of years, no interview with Armstrong seemed complete without a question about when he was going to tour Russia. There was no formal offer on the table on September 17, 1957 but that didn’t stop Lubenow from asking and it didn’t stop from answering that he wouldn’t go to Russia if the government asked him to do it. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”
Lubenow spent much of September 18 convincing editors that the story was legit. The Associated Press made Lubenow return to Armstrong’s hotel for confirmation. “Don’t take nothing out of that story,” Armstrong said, “That’s just what I said, and still say.” He even signed Lubenow’s copy of the story and added a declamatory, “Solid." The AP and the UP picked it up and it was headline news on September 19. The UP edition added a paragraph at the end: “Armstrong heretofore has been silent on the integration issue. He has been denounced by Negro leaders as an ‘Uncle Tom’ for playing before segregated audiences.” True enough, black students of Fisk University boycotted Armstrong’s March 4, 1957 performance at the Ryman Theater in Nashville, Tennessee after theater management switched seating from integrated to segregated. And in Esquire magazine in May 1957, Dizzy Gillespie specifically called out Armstrong his for alleged “Uncle Tom-like subservience” and added, “Nowadays no cat should be a Tom.”
But no one was calling Armstrong an “Uncle Tom” on September 19. The news that broke that morning was on television by the evening and was being broadcast around the world via radio. The Associated Press published a follow-up story later in the day about the worldwide spread of the news writing, “Budapest radio told its listeners Armstrong’s statement that he won’t go to Russia was a ‘protest against the discrimination of Negro students in America.’” Louis Armstrong, protestor. A lot of people could not wrap their heads around that thought.
Interestingly, one of the first editorials to tackle Armstrong’s comments was a positive one. With a simply headline of “Armstrong is Right,” The Gazette and Daily of York, Pennsylvania wrote:
“How right Louis Armstrong is. And how refreshing to have some one speak out in the old American tradition criticizing the government and the President with no ifs, ands or buts for the appalling lack of leadership on the school integration question.”
“It is just no wonder that Louis Armstrong and other decent, conscientious Americans are upset. How is it that the President confers only with the governor of Arkansas, a man who is defying the application of federal law, and not with the children themselves or their parents, the people who are suffering unspeakably because they are obeying the law and in the process fighting for American freedoms.”
“The paralysis at the executive level of federal government in this kind of situation is not good for Little Rock or the United States. There is just too much of the suggestion that the hate-inspired mobs are proving themselves stronger than the constituted government, that they are calling the tune. The young Americans have been turned away from school and the President is on the golf course. Thank heaven at least for Louis Armstrong. “
That same day, September 20, Armstrong received words of support from prominent black figures such as Jackie Robinson, Eartha Kitt and Lena Horne. Robinson said, “I congratulate Louis Armstrong. This is a feeling that is becoming rampant among Negroes. It is spreading very rapidly. Now the Negroes are beginning to stand up and be counted.” Nat King Cole was a little more cautious, saying, “It’s not up to me, Nat Cole, as a Negro entertainer, to make a comment. It’s not what I think, it’s what you think...What we all think. We’re all under the Constitution of the United States. There is something that should be done. But I don’t think it should be boiled down to what Negroes think. It’s obvious what Negroes think.” Cole added, “I certainly don’t disagree with Louie Armstrong because he is speaking morally what he feels. But I do believe the President of teh United States should have said something. He should have let us know just what is taking place--not just the Negro, everybody.”
The very next day, radio station WBKJ in Hattiesburg, Mississippi said they were discarding all of Armstrong’s records, along with those of Kitt and Horne. The backlash was beginning. An editorial in “The Muncie Star” on September was the first to tell Armstrong he should have kept his mouth shut.
“Louis Armstrong is better on the trumpet than he is on sociology. For years we have cherished a deep admiration for this big, jazz-talking man who is affectionately known to millions as Satchmo. We still do. His own race, or any other race, could do with more like him. … But we wish Satchmo had stuck to his trumpet playing.” The paper concluded that even though Armstrong was a black man, he wasn’t able to grasp the complexities of racial injustice because he wasn’t a politician. “The fault is not Armstrong’s,” the editorial continued. “He is just an average American in all but mastery of his trumpet, where he is far from average. His mind is not trained to weigh every word for its diplomatic impact. Like most average Americans, he speaks up when he feels like it, without too much thought to the use someone in Moscow might make of his speech.”
Perhaps sensing the backlash was going to jeopardize Armstrong’s career, his longtime road manager Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie decided to contact the press. The United Press picked up on it, publishing a story around the country which found Tallerie saying, “Louie isn’t mad at anybody. He couldn’t stay mad for more than a few seconds anyway.” Tallerie added that Armstrong “loves Eisenhower and feels he is doing all he can” in Little Rock.
That article was published early on September 21--by the evening of September 21, the United Press already had a rebuttal from Armstrong himself. “‘Satchmo’ Lets Loose Blast At His Manager” screamed the headline. Armstrong, speaking after a concert in Fargo--and surrounded by his integrated All Stars--told reporters he was sleeping when Tallerie talked to the press and added that Tallerie, “doesn’t particularly care about the colored people. He’s trying to make me look like a fool to my own people. I can speak for myself. I’m fighting for my rights.” The UP story concluded, “Armstrong...made it clear that from now on he’s the man to see for future statements. He said he sent telegrams to 10 major newspapers around the nation saying he’ll speak for himself.”
One paper Armstrong personally called was The Pittsburgh Courier, which ran a now-famed story, “Satchmo’ Tells Off Ike, U.S.!” which the trumpeter saved a copy of in one of his personal scrapbooks. “I wouldn’t take back a thing I’ve said,” Armstrong told the “Courier.” “I’ve had a beautiful life over 40 years in music, but I feel the downtrodden situation the same as any other Negro. My parents and family suffered through all of that old South and things are new now, and [no] Tallerie and no prejudiced newspaper can make me change it. What I’ve said is me. I feel that.” He continued, “My people--the negroes--are not looking for anything-we just want a square shake. But 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...Do you dig me when I still say I have a right to blow my top over injustice?”
Armstrong continued to speak out. Television cameras caught him and Lucille at an airport, a stunning interview found in Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary. Asked about what he would tell the Russians about Little Rock, Armstrong responded, “It all depends what time they send me over there. I don’t think they should send me now until they straighten that mess down South. And for good. I mean not just to blow over. To cut it out...Because they’ve been ignoring the Constitution...They’re taught it in school, but when they go home their parents tell them different. Say, ‘You don’t have to abide by it because we’ve been getting away with it a hundred years. Nobody tells on each other. So don’t bother with it.’ So, if they ask me what’s happening if I go now, I can’t tell a lie…[That’s] the way I feel about it.”
The more Armstrong spoke out and continued to protest, the more hate mail he received. Perhaps surprisingly, Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser supported Armstrong 100%. Armstrong told black entertainer Babe Wallace in 1959, “And the [Little Rock] statement I made, I mean, I know Joe’s going to back me. I didn’t even write him. I didn’t say nothing, he didn’t even know I was going to do it. He wasn’t going to turn me around. So he couldn’t do that, so right there he say, ‘Well, whatever he said, he don’t waste words and I’m with him a hundred percent.’ That’s all I want to hear, what he’s got to say.” Later, Armstrong added, “Shit, Joe Glaser’s ain’t say nothing to discourage me. And when I made that [Little Rock] statement and letters come in by the sacksful, he took his time and sorted the good ones from the bad ones. He kept all the bad ones and say, ‘You keep the good ones, I’ll answer the bad ones.’ From the South. You know, there’s a lot of diehards. Shit.”
That didn’t stop many newspapers from publishing “the bad ones.” “Reference is made to an Associated Press dispatch printed in the Herald which quoted the statements of one loud mouth Negro known as (Satchmo) Louis Armstrong, whose ancestors came to this country from the jungles of Africa,” wrote a reader to the Herald-Journal of Spartanburg, South Carolina on September 22. “The inhabitants possessed only the level of intelligence found in a region of primitive ignorance and savage environment. He is indebted to the white race for all he has accomplished and he owes a debt of gratitude to America for the privilege of sharing in the freedom and prosperity he enjoys in the United States...I think it is the duty of the press and the officials of both national and state governments to join in righteous indignation until such low specimens are brought before the bar of justice and forced to apologize to the American people--or be given a one-way ticket to Africa where he belongs.”
The next day, The Tampa Tribune published a letter from a reader writing, “All Louis Armstrong has done, to my knowledge, for this country is spread Rock-and-Roll music all over the world and then he puts out such an ignorant attack on President Eisenhower who anyone knows has more responsibility to meet and difficult decisions to make than Louis Armstrong could even imagine. President Eisenhower has tried to give the Negro an opportunity to progress and about all the thanks he gets from the Negro race is such an attack as this.”
Things weren’t much better in the Lincoln Journal Star where reader “Doleful” wrote a letter that deserves to be quoted in full, again, only because much of this line of thinking is alive in 2017:
“So Louis Armstrong, Old Satchmo, says ‘to hell with the government.’ Or to hell with the United States. After all that the United States has given to him--wealth, fame, the chance to become an immortal in the halls of musical fame--he says ‘to hell with the government’ and calls our President nasty names. Since he so evidently doesn’t like the United States, its people and its government, I would suggest that we give him a passport and one-way ticket to Russia, where he could be happy. Old Satchmo is now exhibiting exactly the attitude that causes the southern people to refuse to integrate. He has been treated as an equal by the whites for so long that he has adopted the overbearing attitude of superiority to which the southerners object.”
That letter did inspire some defenders of Armstrong, including reader Joanne Streeter, who wrote in response, “Louis Armstrong has no obligation to the U. S. A. He has not been treated better or had more privileges than any other American citizen. You certainly overestimate the earnings of an entertainer, specifically a trumpet player. His great personal success is irrelevant in the matter I’m concerned with, which is the reason Negroes want equal opportunities, particularly in schools. If Negroes were to continue to stay segregated, the prejudiced, domineering white people in certain areas of would continue to feel superior. Negroes do not strive for integration because of any ignorant reasons people invent, but because of becoming equal socially. Unity was the result of the Civil War; equality has yet to be completely established. However, with the staunch courage and persistence to triumph that fellow Negroes have, I’m certain segregation will cease.”
Still, the negative responses to Armstrong’s words far outweighed any published defenses of Armstrong. Also on September 23, Clarion-Ledger columnist Tom Ethridge wrote in his “Mississippi Notebook” column, “Louis Armstrong , colored trumpet tooter, showed off his bad manners by calling President Eisenhower “two-faced” and saying he has “no guts.” It’s a cinch Armstrong isn’t two-faced. If so ,he would be wearing the other face. As for the ‘no guts’ accusation, Mr. Eisenhower’s record man speaks for itself...We are not familiar with Armstrong’s military record, if any.”
Columnist Dorothy Thompson jumped on Armstrong’s use of the phrase “my people,” writing, “When he referred to ‘my people’ he plainly meant the colored Americans, thus segregating them from the rest. But if the Negroes are, in their own minds, a separate people, than the Supreme Court decision denying former decisions re ‘separate but equal’ educational facilities has little to stand on.” (I’m trying to leave opinion out of this--but really?)
Most of the vitriol was saved for letters to the editor. On September 23, a reader wrote to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune to attack Armstrong’s musical ability. “I see where Louis Armstrong said the government can go to blazes, or words to that effect, and I would like to say that I noticed several ‘fluffs’ in Armstrong’s trumpet playing recently and while he undoubtedly was a great trumpeter in ‘Mahogany Halls,’ old rubber lips can’t play worth a darn any more.”
On September 24, The Montgomery Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama signed by a reader with the now-ironic initials “B. L. M”:
“I may have overlooked it but the recent outburst of one Louis Armstrong seems to have received small editorial comment. Frankly, this jungle-like snarl by this Negro about his country and his president and some of his fellow citizens is in keeping with his race. However, such has little or no place in this country. It is to be deplored that such an outburst was even published.”
“This Armstrong is only two or three generations removed from slavery and not over four or five generations removed from the jungles of Africa. That background certainly shows. It confirms the truism that “you give them an inch and they will take a mile.” Is it not possible for the Negro race to learn that the civilization of the white race is a product of generations of progress. Progress in culture, in arts and sciences and living together with their fellow men.”
“Compare the evidence of this progress in civilization that are found in Europe and North America with the evidences of progress found in Africa. It is then that we can see that the words, background, culture, heritage and traditions are almost foreign to this Louis Armstrong and his ilk. It would be revolutionary among the so-called Negro leaders if they would look at their background compared to their present standing. And then look at the years of struggle the white race has had to gain its present preferred standing. But I fear if they did so take a good look, its effect would be lost. Comprehension requires a background.”
“As a thought, for the day, they might consider that the white race received its Magna Carta in 1066 and it was 800 years later that free public schools were inaugurated. The Negro was emancipated in 1865 at the end of the war (not the date of the declaration), and it has not been 100 years. Are they the superior race? I more than doubt it.”
But just as we see with the NFL debate, Armstrong had his defenders. That same day, a letter to the editor was published in The Minneapolis Star by reader Carl Rowan saying Armstrong’s words were something to be celebrated. “Actually, anyone suggesting penalties for Armstrong really is suggesting penalties for our country, for Satchmo has won this nation billions of dollars worth of goodwill in places where we need it so desperately,” Rowan wrote. “It just might add to that goodwill to have people in Asia and Africa see that in our democracy even an ebony-skinned trumpet player can blow some ‘hot notes’ at the President without a host of emotional people rushing to ‘put him in his place.’”
The same day both of the above letters were published, September 24, was the end of the Little Rock saga as President Eisenhower finally sent in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to escort the nine African-American students into Little Rock Central High. Like the rest of the world, Armstrong watched and applauded Eisenhower’s actions, sending him a telegram that also made news around the country. “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along Daddy,” Armstrong wrote. “God bless you.” Reporter Art Michelson caught up with Armstrong in Davenport the night he sent the telegram and published an interview in Davenport’s Quad-City Times, quoting Armstrong as saying, “Things are looking a lot better than they did before” and saying of Eisenhower, “It was just wonderful the way he explained it. It was all in good faith.” Armstrong added, “The President said the troops are going down there and that’s all right with me. It won’t start any trouble. This is the greatest country and that’s the only thing that smells--everything else is fine.”
To Armstrong, it was time to move on. To many of his supporters, it was Armstrong’s words that spurred Eisenhower to do the right thing. “I think it was what Louis said that got Ike up off his rear over the Little Rock business,” said trumpeter Max Kaminsky. “That episode is one hell of smear over America, and it takes a hell of a lot of guts for Louis to stand up and say the things he said. Louis is not an Uncle Tom. He’s a great man, apart from the fact that he’s the greatest jazz trumpet player.” It’s interesting to point out that even some Southern editorials made the connection. One in The Courier-Gazette of McKinney, Texas, was titled “New ‘Day Of Infamy’” and opened, “Tuesday was a sad day for the States of the United States South of the mason-Dixon Line--another ‘day of infamy.’ Dictatorship, which ‘couldn’t happen here,’ rolled into the South when the President of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower, gave a terse order for troops of the 101st Airborne Division to move into Little Rock, and the federalization of Arkansas’s National Guard and Air National Guard, to deal with Little Rock’s school integration problem. It wasn’t long ago, was it, that this same President of the United States said that he would not resort to force in the integration squabble? … Or was he listening to Negro trumpet player Louis Armstrong, who blew his trumpet with a silly blast to the effect that we wouldn’t go along on government-sponsored trip to Russia because ‘the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell?’” Armstrong forgave Eisenhower, saying in Rochester, Minnesota on September 27, “The President, he’s the greatest. Ike and Lincoln--hallelujah!”
But even with the apparent change of heart, many could not get over the audacity of the rich black man criticizing the President and the United States government. Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen (“The Voice of Broadway”) wrote, “Louis Armstrong’s former fans along Broadway feel he will rue the day he rapped President Eisenhower. The consensus is that it was okay to blast Orval Faubus, but frightfully bad form to take on the President of the United States--especially in those ill-chosen words.At any rate, Satchmo hardly qualifies as an expert on what contributes to the advancement of the colored race; if he did, he would long ago have divorced himself professionally from Velma Middleton, whose tasteless (nay, vulgar) performances with the Armstrong band rate as ‘’handkerchief-head’ with progressives, and do anything but elevate the prestige of the Negro in our society.”
Still, the angriest letters came from American citizens writing to their newspaper editorial boards. A letter by “Integrationist” to The Times of Richmond, Indiana read, “Now ‘Satchmo’ Louis Armstrong more than ever should go to Russia with no worry about answering their questions. They should be speechless. He told our government to ‘Go to Hell’ and is still around. It couldn’t happen there. This popping off by Armstrong and other Negro celebrities serves no constructive purpose in helping their people, who have shown much patience and dignity which will pay off.” A letter to the Minnesota Star-Tribune defended Armstrong and other African-American celebrities for speaking out but took on a “too little, too late” approach, adding, “They are brave enough, but not as brave as others who spoke out sooner and paid for their temerity with the ruin of their careers.” A letter just below it used the “Republicans are better for African-Americans than Democrats” argument we still see today, reading, “The whole mess down south is the result of generations of ‘Democratic’ party rule….As for people like Louis Armstrong and Eartha Kitt, do they think they are advancing the cause of the Negro by attacking the President? After all, their race has enjoyed more progress under Mr. Eisenhower than the Democrats ever provided. Another great Republican who helped them also was jeered and reviled. His name was Abraham Lincoln.”
That same day, September 26, The Tampa Tribune featured a letter from a reader with the headline “Satchmo’s Sedition.” “The American people should feel that a grievous insult was done them, when Louis Armstrong said the President had ‘no guts,” the letter read. “He, by making this slanderous attack, has hurt himself more than anyone. For he has lost the respect that the American people once held him in. No longer should he be allowed to call himself, Louis Armstrong, American; but simply as Louis Armstrong, seditionist and fool.”
A letter to the editor of Muncie Evening Press in Muncie, Indiana was addressed directly to Armstrong:
“I was shocked at the poverty of soul you displayed when you turned down your President’s request to go to Russia, saying you wouldn’t know what answers to give any Russian who claimed our current ‘racial troubles’ make our pretense of being a democracy laughable. No matter how you feel toward the Southerners and others now desperately trying to fight the steamroller efforts of federal carpetbaggers to force integration on them, I feel there are at least a few points you could mention in defense of the land which has been so good to you.”
“For example, you could point out to any curious Russian boy how you were able to rise from poverty to the very heights in your chosen field. You could tell him about all the money you’ve made and about all the many wonderful things you can buy and do with it in this great country in which you live. You could cite a few of the many thousands of other Negroes who have achieved fame and fortune in every field of human endeavor, under our free enterprise, capitalistic system.”
The reader’s line about “you turned down your President’s request to go to Russia” is the 1957 definition of “fake news.” Armstrong was beloved overseas--his best-selling 1956 Columbia LP was titled Ambassador Satch--but he had never done a State Department tour and didn’t even have anything officially booked with Russia. Most citizens didn’t care and assumed Armstrong insulted the State Department. The National Archives contains a series of letters from constituents to their Congressmen and Senators wanting to put an end to any State Department work for Armstrong. One letter from Orlando, Florida read, “How long has our tax money been used to send Louis Armstrong and any others on good will tours of Russia and other nations and why? This is to protest such use.” Rep. George Grant of Alabama wrote the State Department to say, “I reiterate that no person who makes such statements as Armstrong did should be officially recognized as a good-will ambassador for this Government.” A telegram from San Francisco read, “The Negro trumpeter Louis Armstrong should be banned completely by our State Department from making further trips representing the United States of America. His remarks about the president make him unfit to speak outside of the United States.” Another telegram from a concerned citizen read, “I am sure most U. S. Citizens would be most unhappy were the State Dept. to further utilize the services--such as they are--of Armstrong. Phillip Nolan once referred to his Country in uncomplimentary terms and received just punishment--perhaps Louis Armstrong deserves no better?” Democratic Senator Lister Hill, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, passed along a letter from an Alabama Citizen reading, “Sir, not because I think his music is drivel, which it is, but I certainly can’t see how a man who says ‘the government can go to hell!’ can be any sort of an effective salesman for it. I urge you to do all in your power to prevent him from going on this tour.”
The State Department eventually composed a two-page response, refraining from any criticism of Armstrong but making it clear that they had never signed him to any official tours of Russia or anywhere else. But it was becoming clear that Armstrong was toxic to many U. S. citizens, something that was making advertising and television executives nervous. Armstrong was due to appear on two major CBS television specials, “Crescendo,” an episode of the DuPont Show of the Month on September 29 and The Edsel Show on October 13 and both sponsors were scared of putting Armstrong on television. Columnist Leonard Lyons wrote on September 27, “The sponsor of ‘Crescendo’ wanted Louis Armstrong canceled from the TV spectacular after he’d denounced President Eisenhower over the Little Rock case. CBS held firm, and Armstrong will stay with the show.” Photos began popping up in the papers of Armstrong and Carol Channing promoting “Crescendo,” showing there was no turning back.
There was also no slowing down of negatives letters being written to the press about Armstrong. The day before “Crescendo” aired, the Los Angeles Times published a letter from a reader criticizing Armstrong’s “ill-timed and ill-considered” words, concluding, “We personally wonder what Mr. Armstrong--who is very likely a millionaire--is doing for his own people. Those who talk loudest usually do the least on a practical basis.” And that same day, a woman wrote to The Des Moines Tribune, “Louis Armstrong really got off on the wrong beat when he made an attack on the government because of outrages against Negroes. They are done in defiance and contempt of the government….Very few white people are in favor of integrated schools, but many of them plan to avoid integration within the framework of the law--not the Faubus way. Are those who insisted that troops be sent South willing that their own boys be shot down in the cause of integration? Will a class of arms speed up the process of integration? Many northern people are in sympathy with segregation. Who can say that they would not lend their support to the South? While many young white people of the South are not at all hostile toward integration, if civil war broke out, we could expect them to follow the example of their beloved Robert E. Lee. He did not believe in slavery and opposed secession but when the showdown came he went with Virginia.” Again, we cannot get away from these themes in 2017. Ask anyone in Charlottesville.
The day of the “Crescendo” broadcast was no different. The Press and Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton, New York published a letter reading, “Unless Louis Armstrong makes a public apology for what he said, he should never be allowed to represent this country, even in so small a way as being an ‘exponent of jazz.’ If he really believes what he has said, and if he has any self-respect, he will transfer his citizenship to another country and see if it can do just one-half as well for him as this country has. Armstrong should not try the patience of this country too far. He may find himself ‘on the outside, looking in,’ as has happened to Charles Chaplin, who also failed to remember that this country made him and could discard him.”
It was the same story in the Springfield Leader and Press in Springfield, Missouri: “Now that Mr. Louis Armstrong has told our Government where to go, in his own inimitable fashion, I am of the opinion that the government should not only tell him where to go, but assist him in going….If Mr. Armstrong is an example of the intelligentsia of his race than we can hardly condemn the southerners for their attitude in this matter.” The letter was signed, “An American.”
Of the 79 articles mentioning Armstrong on September 29, 1957 currently housed on Newspaper.com, roughly 70 were previews of that evening’s “Crescendo” broadcast, each of them mentioning Armstrong without alluding to any controversy. The show aired live at 9 p.m., filmed in color, though very few households had color TVs at that time. A super-grainy black-and-white kinescope survives, capturing the star-studded jamboree in all its splendor: Rex Harrison, Benny Goodman, Diahann Carroll, Peggy Lee, Eddy Arnold, Mahalia Jackson, Sonny James, Dinah Washington, Stubby Kaye, Lizzie Miles and more.
Louis’s first big scene is a version of “Now You Has Jazz” from the previous year’s hit film, High Society. Armstrong duetted with the ultra cool Bing Crosby in that one, but for “Crescendo” he was teamed with the somewhat manic Rex Harrison. It’s quite an odd clip with Armstrong almost groping Harrison at times (perhaps thinking of all the people watching at home who were uncomfortable with the concept of integration?) and Harrison, well, being Harrison. I’ve screened it at presentations and audiences usually scream with laughter at this one-time-only combination. It lives on YouTube but without the ability to embed it you’ll have to click here to view it.
But Armstrong’s other big feature is one of the most memorable things he ever did on the small screen, especially given the events of the previous 10 days. Diahann Carroll sang a beautiful, heartfelt version of the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” As she held the final note, the camera slowly pulled back and the sound of a trumpet could be heard at another part of the stage. This is what happened next:
Armstrong had recorded “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” twice before, once for Decca in 1938 and most recently for Verve in August 1957. He knew the song well and plays it with plenty of soul. But heading into the second half, Armstrong pauses and when he resumes playing, quotes another song: “The Star Spangled Banner.”
If it was any other song, or even “The Star Spangled Banner” by itself, which Armstrong usually used to close his shows, one could make the tenuous Armstrong that maybe Armstrong was displaying his patriotism with the quote. But I don’t buy it. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is a sad, painful song, one that could have served as Armstrong’s theme. From his poverty-ridden days in New Orleans, he saw racism, saw police brutality (he told Orson Welles in 1970, “Those were scary days because in those days, the cops would whip your head and ask your name afterwards.), he saw lynchings, was chased by mobs, you name it. As a rising star in the 1930s, Armstrong couldn’t enter white hotels, was arrested in Memphis, was held at gun point and so much more. He overcame it all only to be called “Uncle Tom” by members of his own race, leading Armstrong to tell Jon Hendricks when asked how it felt, “They couldn’t have made it through what I went through.”
Armstrong loved his working class neighborhood in Corona, Queens with its Italian, Irish and African-American population. Dozens of photos survive of Armstrong hanging out with kids of all backgrounds. The sight of that mob of white people yelling and spitting at nine black students just trying to go to school caused something to snap. This country was letting down “his people.” Some of the aforementioned letters to newspaper editors hinted that Armstrong was a millionaire and thus should have been disqualified from speaking but nobody knew the troubles Armstrong had seen and on national television, Armstrong made it crystal clear that that spiritual spoke for him, spoke for his race, and was more of an anthem than “The Star Spangled Banner” could ever be.
The next day, reviews came in for “Crescendo,” most of them on the negative side, though many critics singled out Armstrong’s appearance. Canadian columnist Bob Burgess wrote, “Diahann carroll’s ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ [and] Louis’ trumpet solo on the same number” were “highspots.” Jerry Handte in The Binghamton Press added, “Good music also was made by...Louis Armstrong in a chorus of ‘Nobody Knows De Trouble I’ve Seen.’” Donald Kirkley wrote in The Baltimore Sun, “In the midst of the debacle, Diahann Carroll was spotlighted, alone, in a rocking chair and a plain dress, and she sang “No Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” with great beauty and feeling. It was like finding a diamond in a trash can. Louis Armstrong picked up the melody and proved that he can make a trumpet cry, sustaining the mood in his own way.” John Crosby used the same metaphor in The Hartford Courant, writing, “Armstrong’s trumpet solo on ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,’ the trumpet almost crying, was superb.”
All of these writers picked up on the power of Armstrong’s horn on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” but in these pre-DVR days of live TV, the quote of “The Star Spangled Banner” went by a little too fast for them. However, there was one person who noticed:
Armstrong taped the audio of “Crescendo” onto one of his personal reel-to-reel tapes. He dubbed “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” once. Then he dubbed it again in its entirety. Then he dubbed it one more time--starting with just the trumpet solo. Armstrong frequently talked about making these tapes “for posterity.” By recording this moment three times in a row, he was more or less insisting that posterity pay attention to this moment.
Not much changed in the days after “Crescendo.” A letter signed by “AN X-SATCHMO FAN” in The Times of Hammond, Indiana addressed Armstrong directly: “I always had a great deal of admiration for you. I felt you were doing a good job as good will ambassador, but how wrong I was. So you told the government where to go. I should ask you a question? Where else in the world could you have reached the success you have but here in the USA. You owe everything you have to this country, as do each and every one of us; including our undying loyalty. You have traveled far and wide and have always been welcomed with open arms. I know because my husband has hauled you on tours. Your remarks have done more to hurt your race than you realize. I think that each and every one of us is trying very hard to practice tolerance and then someone like you starts talking through tin horns.”
The Orlando Sentinal ran this cartoon along with a short editorial swipe at Armstrong:
That same day, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published the following letter from a reader: “Doubtless President Eisenhower has forgotten the verbal abuse directed at him, and later the disrespectful telegram pertaining to the Little Rock situation by Louis Armstrong, the musician, if indeed the President ever knew of it. But some of the rest of us haven’t forgotten. Could it be that lack of respect for authority by some members of our youthful society is influenced by such fulgar and unrestrained language as that used by Armstrong in his exercise of so-called freedom of speech? If Armstrong has anything more to say, let us hope it will be an apology to the President.”
As always, there were some who supported Armstrong. A syndicated column from Robert C. Ruark was published across the country in early October. Ruark, writing from London, began, “From reading the account of what’s going on in Arkansas, I think that if I were a negro, I would insist on segregation, if only from a feeling of superiority. If I were a negro father, I would not want my children to associate with the children of some of the white scum that has been kicking up such a disgraceful, beastly ruckus in Little Rock.” Ruark ended, “Louis Armstrong’s revulsion against his country is widely quoted here, and we have, at least temporarily, lost ambassador Satch. I wish I could criticize his stand, but I can’t. I am afraid there are sectors of the states which have lost my allegiance, too, and I think a special passport should be issued to the citizens of Arkansas before they are allowed passage to the outside world.”
Matters quieted down in the next few days, but there was still another big CBS television appearance coming up on October 13 with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra on The Edsel Show. Izzy Rowe reported in The Pittsburgh Courier on October 5, “The first to try and get under was the Edsel Division of Ford Motors, which had Armstrong as a scheduled guest on its first TV sponsored spectacular oct. 13. In a not-too-subtle manner, the makers of America’s newest car suggested to CBS that Armstrong be eliminated from the Bing Crosby Frank Sinatra spectacular. CBS, carriers of the one-hour eye-level commercial, however, made no move to eliminate Armstrong. From reliable sources it was reported that the biggest fear of the TV company was that if the great trumpet player was canceled, Bing Crosby, who is a great friend of the jazz star, would quit the show also. With the change of sentiment, no further moves have been made to ax Louis.”
For the next several days, Armstrong’s art actually kept his name in the paper, thanks to multiple mentions of the brand new Decca 4-LP album, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography and the upcoming release of Edward R. Murrow’s theatrical documentary, Satchmo the Great. In Los Angeles to promote Satchmo the Great and preview The Edsel Show, Armstrong said of Eisenhower, “That man has a soul. He has done as much as Lincoln did.”
But then, out of the blue, more high profile criticism on October 12. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell told the audience of a “Youth Wants to Know” television program that Satch “didn’t know what he was talking about. He is not too conversant with what is happening in the world and current events.” This seemed to sting Armstrong, who told Ebony in 1961, “When I made that statement, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell was interviewed over TV. He was asked about what I had said. He told the TV reporter he didn’t aree: ‘Louis Armstrong isn’t up on current events.’ Well, I may not be up on current events, but I’m up on head-whipping.”
That same day, Sammy Davis Jr. told Canadian reporters, “You cannot voice an opinion about a situation which is basically discrimination, integration, etc., and then go out and appear before segregated audiences...which Louis Armstrong had done for many years.” Davis also complained about Armstrong singing the word “darkies” on “Mississippi Mud,” confusing it with his 1951 recording of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” “For years Louis Armstrong has been important in the newspapers. They have always been ready to give space if he had anything to say that really was important, and he never has. Now this happens. I don’t think it’s honest. If it is, why didn’t he say it ten years ago? He doesn’t need a segregated audience.”
Davis’s statement seemed to come out of the blue. Leslie Matthews in The New York Age responded, “Now who told Sammy Davis, Jr., he was a politician. His blast at Louis Armstrong was uncalled for and out of place. Louis made more friends with his statement than he has in a decade.” The New York Post contacted Joe Glaser, who said, “[Louis] doesn’t want to talk about Sammy Davis Jr. If Sammy Davis Jr. wants to talk about Louis Armstrong and get some publicity, let him. But Louis is not interested in getting into any argument with him. Who cares about Sammy Davis Jr.?”
Lucille Armstrong was still livid over these attacks in 1972, the year after Armstrong died, telling an interviewer, “But the press, you know, they interviewed Adam Clayton Powell, they interviewed Sammy Davis--and I don’t mind calling names because it’s on record--they put Pops down because they said he was a musician, he didn’t know what he was talking about...He felt it deeply, he really did.”
Glaser created more headlines with a separate interview with the New York Post. A throw-away one-liner appeared in dozens of newspapers beginning on October 9: “The U. of Arkansas has invited ‘Satchmo’ Louis Armstrong to tootle its spring prom in ‘58.” On October 15, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus was told that Armstrong would be played an integrated dance in Fayetteville. “That’s all right,” Faubus said. “He is a fine musician and I hope he is treated (in Fayetteville) with all the courtesy that should be accorded a U. S. citizen.”
Glaser couldn’t help bragging a little bit, saying it was “quite an honor” and “a great moral victory.” “Armstrong will play with a mixed band for a mixed audience for a big, fat fee,” Glaser boasted. The Post quoted Armstrong as saying, “The only thing I resent is that Gov. Orval Faubus will be listening to those beautiful notes that will come from my horn. He doesn’t deserve them.”
One day later, the University withdrew its invitation because of Armstrong and Glaser’s “unfortunate” remarks about the engagement, creating more headlines around the nation. Dr. John Tyler Caldwell, the President of the University, said, “The students at the University of Arkansas made contact with Louis Armstrong’s staff to play for them next March solely because they appreciate his music and without regard to the racial composition of his band. For him or his representatives to attempt now by public statement to use this engagement in any way to advance a social cause or embarrass the state of Arkansas is unfortunate….It is a blunder which obviously can help no one and just as obviously does much mischief.”
Once again, Glaser repeated the same feels he had about Sammy Davis Jr.: “Who cares? … We don’t have to return the contract if we don’t want to. The university signed it. But we’ll send it back. I have nothing against the boys at the university. We have them hooked if we want to be nasty, but we wouldn’t do that to a bunch of nice guys. I think this is the result of Gov. Faubus. He definitely put the pressure on them. It’s all pretty silly, but who cares?”
A few days later, on October 19, the State Department finally released their statement that they had never officially asked Armstrong to make a goodwill tour. They might have been spurred by a Miami Herald editorial from October 9, “Satchmo Not Man For Job,” which opened, “It is incredible that the Department of State would now consider sending trumpet player Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong behind the Iron Curtain as an ‘unofficial ambassador of goodwill.’ Yet that is what is apparently proposes to do at taxpayers’ expense….Armstrong has made himself a propaganda instrument for those who would destroy and breed hatreds of alien countries against us. He will be introduced not as a successful Negro from the United States but as a symbol of disunity and as the man who publicly scoffed at his President and slurred him in uncouth language.”
This doesn’t mean they weren’t monitoring his overseas exploits. Armstrong headed to South America for the first time on October 27 for a five-week tour, giving 67 concerts between October 27 and December 5. The State Department was watching, as evidenced by the files they kept on him, now part of the National Archives with copies of the internal correspondence now part of the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The file includes a copy of an AP article from Armstrong’s very first press conference of the tour in Buenos Aires, when he told reporters the United States government could “put its foot down” to stop race troubles “but, you know, the government is run by Southerners.” “We don’t take that jive now,” Armstrong said, adding, “I’ll tell the same thing to anyone I meet down here.”
One story not in the State Department file was witnessed first hand-by photographer Lisl Steiner. While in his hotel room being photographed by Steiner, Armstrong received a phone call from the United States Ambassador to Argentina--asking him to play "The Star Spangled Banner." I interviewed Steiner in September 2013 and she remembered Armstrong's words vividly 56 years later: "Mr. Ambassador, you can go and fuck yourself because I can't even get a hotel room in Times Square!" He then hung up the phone and raised his hands triumphantly. Steiner snapped this photo:
Armstrong taped many of his concerts on that South American tour, from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas and other stops. He did not close any of his shows with "The Star Spangled Banner."
With Armstrong out of the country for the entire month of November, coverage of his statements on race and Little Rock died down. A political cartoon in December even alluded to the effectiveness of Armstrong the ambassador:
Back in New York in December, Armstrong opened at the famous Copacabana. It was here that he gave an impassioned defense of his Little Rock statements to Phyllis Battelle:
“I don’t dig these politics. I had no business blowin’ off but when a newspaper reporter asked me how I was feelin’, somethin’ snapped.”
“It had to stop. Somebody’s shootin’ your brother and it has to stop sometime. I don’t know--there was somethin’ about that morning. Suddenly I was just another Negro, scared to walk the street. I can’t do nothing but blow my horn, and that’s what I did.
Battele reported, “He isn’t sorry that he blew off at Washington--because now they know where he stands. Armstrong added, “Only the colored Congressmen, and somebody like Sammy Davis--I don’t dig those guys. When they say I shouldn’t said what I did, I know they’re not up on those current events. I’ve toured through all them South states and I’ve seen it … you can’t say nothing to nobody--it’s that bad and that common. When you say your prayers every night, and within our heart you know you’re goin’ to treat everybody right, and you bless everything worth blessing, that finally gets you. But I guess those cats would rather I just keep blowin’.”
He received good reviews on opening night and Ed Sullivan said it was “a solid click,” but that didn’t stop nemesis Dorothy Kilgallen from crowing, “Louis Armstrong's engagement at the Copacabana has proven a great disappointment to all concerned. Apparently Satchmo, who rated Page One headlines when he rapped the President of the United States, isn’t quite as effective as a supper club draw.”
That was all it took for columnist Jim Bishop to write the last attack on Armstrong in the year 1957. Bishop’s column was syndicated by King Features and spread like wildfire on December 30, the same day Armstrong was due to appear again on television on the inaugural Timex All Stars Jazz Show. Bishop said of the Copacabana engagement, “Armstrong...did le business poor. People did not want to see him. He is scheduled to star on an upcoming TV show. For one, I will not look.”
Bishop reiterated the whole saga of Armstrong and Little Rock, falsely claiming that Armstrong “apologized to the President,” which never happened. “Now, all is sweetness and light,” Bishop continued. “Mr. Armstrong, who is accustomed to the huge adoring crowds, played to some empty tables at the Copacabana. This hurts his pride and his pocketbook. He will play to some blank picture tubes tonight.”
Bishop concluded, “When I returned from Europe, I was impressed with the enormity of the damage Armstrong had done to the United States. … Then I checked teh old newspaper files to see what Louis Armstrong had done for the people of his race in the past. I haven’t found anything and now I rise to ask the musician himself: What have you done for your people, except hurt them?”
That ended the whirlwind that was 1958, but Armstrong got the last word in in an interview with Philip Sykes that appeared in The Toronto Telegram on January 23, 1958. Addressing the rumors about empty tables at the Copa, Armstrong said, “I stayed there a month, playing two shows a night--and you don’t do two shows if the business isn’t there. AND I appeared on two TV shows columnists had suggested I would miss. That Mr. Bishop--he was in Europe when the row was on. He just wanted to climb on a bandwagon. He’s a Johnny-come-lately. He didn’t say nothing new. He just picked up the leavings of what other people had written . . . He spelt my name right. I’ll sure give him credit for that. But he didn’t say nothing, that hadn’t been said before.” Armstrong then stopped smiling and unburned himself: “Mr. Bishop’s been so busy being a white man, he don’t know the life of a colored man.”
Armstrong then imparted his philosophy on the world: “Man, I keep happy . . I don’t have no enemies. I want people to love each other all over the world.”
With that, Armstrong went about his business of bringing happiness to audiences around the world. Little Rock was soon forgotten...almost eerily so. The younger jazz musicians who had criticized Armstrong over the years, musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and others, were silent for that entire spell. Some of them, like Dizzy, changed their tune. Others, like Mingus, didn’t. Dave and Iola Brubeck were so inspired, they wrote a Broadway musical which turned into The Real Ambassadors. But for most of the jazz world, it was like Little Rock never happened.
This stung Armstrong more than ever and he more or less vowed to stop discussing these issues in public soon after. (His statement “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched” made headlines in 1965 but that’s the subject for another article.) In 1969, two years before he passed away, an ill Armstrong wrote, “I think that I have always done great things about uplifting my race, but wasn’t appreciated. I am just a musician, and still remember the time, as an American citizen, I spoke up for my people during a big integration rio--Little Rock, remember? I wrote Eisenhower. My first comment, or compliment, whatever you would call it, came from a Negro boy from my hometown New Orleans. The first words that he said to me after reading what I had said in the papers concerning the Little Rock deal--he said as we were sitting down at a table to have a drink. He looked straight at me and said, ‘Nigger, you better stop talking about those white people like you did.’ Hmmmm. I was trying to stop those unnecessary head whippings at the time--that’s all.”
60 years later, prominent African-Americans still are trying to stop those unnecessary head whippings--and are still being told to keep quiet and be thankful they’re no longer slaves. The fight goes on. Thank you, Louis Armstrong. Nobody knows the trouble you saw….