“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.
Lubenow, from the small farming community of Northwood, North Dakota, was shocked by what he heard, but he also knew he had a story; he skipped the concert and went back to the office, typing up what he had on yellow copy paper. ”The Ambassador of Jazz trumpeted a new tune today,” he wrote, before laying out that novel song’s jarring notes. The Herald printed his story the following morning (taking care to remove the word ”hell”), but, dubious that Armstrong would have said such things, the Associated Press editor in Minneapolis refused to put the story on the national news wire until Lubenow could prove he hadn’t made it all up. So he returned to the Dakota, and, as Armstrong was shaving, the Herald photographer took their picture together. (The caption referred to ”Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong, who got all lathered up about segregation here Wednesday”; Lubenow himself was cropped out.) Lubenow then 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 yellow copy paper, and signed his name.
The story flashed across the country. Douglas Edwards and John Cameron Swayze reported it that night on the network evening news programs. Armstrong’s road manager quickly claimed that Satchmo had been tricked, and that he regretted his statements. But Armstrong would have none of that. ”I said what somebody should have said a long time ago,” he declared the following day in Montevideo, Minnesota, where he gave his next concert. He closed that show with ”The Star Spangled Banner”— the traditional version, that is, minus the obscenities.
Armstrong took it from all directions: the writer Jim Bishop called for a boycott of his concerts; the Ford Motor Company threatened to pull its advertisements from a Bing Crosby special on which he was to appear; Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show; a radio station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, threw out all his records. The Russians, an anonymous government spokesman lamented, would relish everything Armstrong had said. Meantime, Sammy Davis, Jr., criticized him for not speaking out ten years sooner. But Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Marian Anderson, and Sugar Ray Robinson quickly lined up behind him. In the black press there was surprise, and delight. Dulles might just as well have stood up at the United Nations and led a chorus of the Russian national anthem, declared Jet, which had once labeled Armstrong an ”Uncle Tom.” 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 had pulled nearly 15 million American blacks to his bosom. Any white confused by Martin Luther King’s polite talk need only listen to Armstrong, the Amsterdam News declared. 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.” ”Louis made more friends with his statement than he has in a decade,” Leslie Matthews wrote in the New York Age. But it was a letter in the Afro-American that put it best. ”When Louis Armstrong gets riled up,” it read, ”the country is really going to hell.”
Because of its ”total unexpectedness,” wrote Buddy Lonesome of the St. Louis Argus, Armstrong’s statement ”in all probability had more devastating effect on President Eisenhower’s administration and national leaders than many mouthings of recognized Negro leaders.” Whether, as Satchmo’s devoted fans believe, what Ike was about to do in Little Rock can be attributed to Louis Armstrong is unclear. But there can be no doubt that what Louis Armstrong did in Grand Forks, North Dakota, could be attributed to Elizabeth Eckford.