For the whole story, go online and look up the New York Times Article, “The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise.” Louis, who mostly stayed out of the fray to play his joyful music, found his moment to take a stronger stand. The year was 1957, the moment when Governor Faubus defied the Supreme Courts ruling that schools were now to be integrated and 9 black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, tried to enter Central High School. They were blocked by the state troops that Faubus sent and President Eisenhower refused to intervene. And Louis got mad.
In an interview in his hotel room before giving a concert in North Dakota, he spoke out strongly and clearly:
“The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell!”
He canceled his tour to Russia and went on to say other strong things that he permitted the interviewer to publish. It was his Colin Kaepernick moment. Using his fame to call attention to something that begged for attention. And of course, he paid a price for daring to speak out. Immediately after (as reported in the Times article)
“A radio station in Hattiesburg, Miss., threw out all of Mr. Armstrong’s records….There were calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.”
Under pressure from others, Eisenhower eventually relented and brought in the National Guard to escort the 9 students and stay with them. Louis wrote him a letter of thanks, in his own ebullient style, and the incident blew over.
And Louis went back to playing his music, singing Hello Dolly and It’s a Wonderful World” and doing his part to make the world yet more wonderful in the way that only he knew how. One might wish for more ongoing outspokenness, but it’s not unconceivable that we would have missed the last 14 years of Louis’ music. (While writing this, I see the police are threatening some scandulous charge against Kaepernick and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess how the powers that be want to shut him up and discredit him. Shameful, shameful, shameful. The Bundy Brothers were just acquitted for their armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife Refuge while Native Americans in Dakota defending their sacred land are being beaten and jailed left and right. It’s absolutely extraordinary and yet so sadly predictable who gets away with terrorism and who gets called to the carpet for defending threatened land and lives. Yet another reason to keep kneeling during the National Anthem until we truly become the “land of the free.”)
So ends my little three-part lesson about our national hero, Mr. Louis Armstrong. Inadvertently helped the 1954 Supreme Court decision to integrate schools and consciously spoke out against the failure of the South to comply. And before, after and during, made some music that brought love, joy and healing. Thanks, Satchmo.