The Day Pops Spoke Out against Racism

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It was this week, 60 years ago, that the attention of the entire country was on Little Rock, Arkansas, where racial tensions were coming to a head as nine Black students were attempting to desegregate the all-white Central High School. Although the US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown vs the Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional, many southern political leaders and communities were determined to preserve this racist policy. The NAACP decided to focus their energies on getting nine exemplary Black students enrolled in a white high school in Arkansas, the “Little Rock Nine.”

On the other side, Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, strongly opposed desegregation, going so far as to deploy the Arkansas National Guard to block the nine students from entering Central High School. President Dwight Eisenhower attempted to persuade Faubus to back down, unsuccessfully.

Elizabeth Eckford, 15, tries to enter Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, in 1957 as she's pursued by a mob.

Elizabeth Eckford, 15, tries to enter Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, in 1957 as she's pursued by a mob.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles north of Little Rock in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Louis Armstrong was getting ready to perform with his All Stars band. Armstrong was not known for his political views, preferring to stay out of debates on social and racial issues. He was, after all, an internationally acclaimed pop star at that time, known for his sweet disposition and beaming smile. The US State Department was planning to send him on a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union, as a demonstration of American racial harmony.

Then, as fate would have it, Grand Forks Herald cub reporter Larry Lubenow snuck into Armstrong’s dressing room prior to his September 17th concert for an exclusive interview with the jazz giant. Initially, Lubenow focused on safer topics, like who was Armstrong’s favorite musician (Bing Crosby!). But soon the conversation steered toward Little Rock, and Armstrong gave the reporter an earful.

“It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” Armstrong railed. He called President Eisenhower “two-faced” with “no guts.” Even more colorfully, Armstrong called Governor Faubus a ''no-good motherfucker.''

"The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell," he said.

Lubenow skipped the concert and ran home to write up the interview, which ran the next day, September 18th. The Associated Press picked it up and it became nationwide news. Civil rights activists rallied around Armstrong, who refused to retract his angry statements. Major companies like Ford Motors pulled their support for him. And Pops never did go on that tour of the Soviet Union. 

Armstrong took a huge risk in speaking out, potentially alienating his national audience and ending his career. That he chose to use his privilege and voice as a pop star to speak out speaks volumes about his character. 

It’s impossible to know if Armstrong’s words had any effect on the racial politics of the day. Some argue that a beloved and respected African-american celebrity speaking out strongly on the issue had a huge effect on the public debate. What is known is that on September 24, President Eisenhower chose to deploy the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to ensure that the nine Black students could attend Central High, ending the stalemate and hastening the end of segregation in America.

So while we happily listen and dance to the music of Pops, let’s also remember the man behind the music, who took an important stand at a pivotal time in our nation’s history. 

You can read more about this story in the New York Times, NPR and the Arkansas Times.