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Jazz star spoke up to writer on racism

It was 50 years ago in September that a landmark decision issued by a federal judge from North Dakota ordered the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.


It was 50 years ago in September that a landmark decision issued by a federal judge from North Dakota ordered the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

The controversial order by Judge Ronald Davies of Grand Forks has been written about countless times.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to keep nine black children out of Central High.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower called out federal troops to enforce Davies' desegregation order. Members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division escorted the Little Rock Nine to classes on Sept. 25, 1957.

But few of us know about an event that took place in Grand Forks on Sept. 17, 1957, two weeks after the Little Rock Nine were first barred from Central High School.


I wouldn't have known about it but for an article from the International Herald Tribune faxed by Judge Myron Bright, the senior U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judge from Fargo. He ran across the article while on a trip to Israel and Dubai.

Famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong was on tour in Grand Forks with his All Stars band. Larry Lubenow, a Northwood, N.D., native and 21-year-old brother of longtime Forum columnist Wayne Lubenow, was a journalism student at the University of North Dakota and working at the Grand Forks Herald for $1.75 an hour.

Lubenow's editor sent him to the Dakota Hotel to try to get an interview with Armstrong, but told him to stay away from politics. That didn't seem to be a problem because Armstrong once said, "I don't get involved in politics. I just blow my horn."

Lubenow was told he couldn't talk to Armstrong until after the concert that night at Grand Forks Central High School. But with the help of a bell captain, he got into Armstrong's suite with a room service lobster dinner, and the famous musician agreed to talk.

Lubenow eventually brought up Little Rock, and Armstrong exploded.

"It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," the furious Armstrong told him. He said Eisenhower was gutless and two-faced. The expletive he called Faubus couldn't be printed, so the two settled on "uneducated plow boy."

Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of "The Star-Spangled Banner," inserting obscenities into the lyrics. That prompted vocalist Velma Middleton, who toured with Armstrong, to hush him up.

Armstrong said he had been contemplating a goodwill tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department, but was having second thoughts.


"The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell," said Armstrong, who also had some choice words for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. "The people over there ask me what's wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?"

Lubenow knew he had a hot story, but missed the Herald's deadline, and The Associated Press editor in Minneapolis didn't believe it.

Lubenow returned to the Dakota Hotel the next morning, showed Armstrong what he'd written, and had the Herald photographer take their picture together.

"Don't take anything out of that story," Armstrong told Lubenow. "That's what I said and still say." He then wrote "solid" on the bottom of the yellow copy paper, and signed his name.

The news account ran across the country, and a radio station in Mississippi threw out all of Armstrong's records.

He was criticized for not speaking out earlier by Sammy Davis Jr., but Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Marian Anderson backed him up.

Armstrong's road manager said he had been tricked and regretted his statements, but Armstrong wasn't hearing it.

"I said what somebody should have said a long time ago," he said the next day in Montevideo, Minn., the site of his next concert.


Armstrong paid a price for being so outspoken. There were calls for boycotts of his concerts, and sponsors threatened to pull out.

But it didn't matter. On Sept. 25, soldiers escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High School.

Armstrong was thrilled. "If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy," he wired the president. "God bless you."

As for Lubenow, who ended up in public relations work in Texas, he got $3.50 for writing the story that revealed the true feelings of trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

Readers can reach Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515 Jazz star spoke up to writer on racism Terry DeVine 20071007

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