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The day Louis Armstrong made noise in Grand Forks


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Historical article today connecting Grand Forks with the Little Rock desegregation of Central High School fifty years ago in the International Herald Tribune and New York Times: SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE ROCK The day Louis Armstrong made noise

Fifty years ago this week, all eyes were on Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine black students were trying, for the first time, to desegregate a major Southern high school. The town of Grand Forks, North Dakota, with fewer than 150 blacks, hardly figured to be a key front in that battle - until Larry Lubenow talked to Louis Armstrong.

On the night of Sept. 17, 1957, two weeks after the Little Rock Nine were first barred from Central High School, the jazz trumpeter happened to be on tour with his All Stars band in Grand Forks. Larry Lubenow was a 21-year-old journalism student and jazz fan at the University of North Dakota, moonlighting for $1.75 an hour at The Grand Forks Herald.

Shortly before Armstrong's concert, Lubenow's editor sent him to the Dakota Hotel, where Armstrong was staying, to see if he could land an interview. Perhaps sensing trouble - Lubenow was, he now says, a "rabble-rouser and liberal" - his boss laid out the ground rules: "No politics," he ordered. That hardly seemed necessary, for Armstrong rarely ventured into such things. "I don't get involved in politics," he once said. "I just blow my horn."

But Lubenow was thinking about other things, race relations among them. The bell captain, with whom he was friendly, had told him that Armstrong was quietly making history in Grand Forks, as he had done innumerable times and ways before, by becoming the first black man ever to stay at what was then the best hotel in town.

Lubenow knew, too, that Grand Forks had its own link to Little Rock: It was the hometown of Judge Ronald Davies, who had just ordered that the desegregation plan in Little Rock proceed after Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas and local segregationists tried to block it.

As Armstrong prepared to play that night - at Grand Forks' own Central High School - members of the Arkansas National Guard ringed the school in Little Rock, ordered to keep the black students out. ...

"It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," a furious Armstrong told him (Lubenow). Eisenhower, he charged, was "two faced," and had "no guts." For Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: "uneducated plow boy." The euphemism, Lubenow says, was far more his than Armstrong's. ...

The news account ran all over the country. Douglas Edwards and John Cameron Swayze broadcast it on the evening news. The Russians, an anonymous government spokesman warned, would relish everything Armstrong had said. A radio station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, threw out all of Armstrong's records. Sammy Davis Jr. criticized Armstrong for not speaking out earlier. But Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Marian Anderson quickly backed him up.

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