Louis Armstrong and Little Rock

Tuesday marks fifty years since nine black students desegregated Little Rock’s Central High School, escorted by some 1,200 paratroopers into Little Rock’s Central High School.

Today’s New York Times features an essay by David Margolick that recounts Louis Armstrong’s unlikely role in the landmark civil rights battle. It shows the little-known impact that an entertainer could have on policy, particularly Armstrong who was known as a political.

Days before the federal troops arrived, as the students were struggling to gain admission to the school, to the opposition of Gov. Orval Faubus and local segretationists, the normally apolitical trumpeter finally spoke out on segregation and the Jim Crow South.

“The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” Armstrong said.

Almost as interesting was who he said it to: Larry Lubenow, a cub reporter for the Grand Forks, N.D. newspaper who was sent to the hotel where Armstrong was staying to secure a soft interview — “no politics,” his editor insisted. Lubenow snuck into Armstrong’s room and secured an interview, and couldn’t resist asking him what he thought of what was going on in Little Rock.

Eisenhower, he said, was “two-faced” and showed “no guts.” When Lubenow’s editors doubted the veracity of Armstrong’s comments, he went back to the hotel the next morning, got a picture with Armstrong and got him to sign a copy of the story with the word, “solid.”

When Eisenhower sent federal troops, Armstrong wired him, “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God Bless You.”

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