What Louis Armstrong Really Thought About Race

Jazz giant had on-off affair with the Civil Rights movement
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 9, 2014 11:17 AM CDT
What Louis Armstrong Really Thought About Race
Louis Armstrong.   (Wikimedia Commons)

People still love Louis Armstrong's music and warm, colorful personality, but we forget about his mixed record during the Civil Rights years—when one critic slammed him as a "racial cop-out." There's something to it: He sang for white audiences in movies (with Barbra Streisand, no less), criticized an effort to desegregate jazz shows, and refused to march with protestors in Alabama who were angered by the police shooting of a voter-registration activist. "They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn't be able to blow my horn," he said. "They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched." But a new book, Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers, and the off-Broadway debut of Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout, paint a more complex picture—of a musician who stuck to his roots and stood up politically when he had leverage, writes Ben Schwartz in the New Yorker.

For instance, Armstrong publicly criticized President Eisenhower in 1957, saying he had "no guts" after refusing to let nine children attend Little Rock Central High School (when Ike relented, Armstrong sent him a telegram saying, "Daddy, you have a good heart"). He also boycotted New Orleans for nine years for banning integrated bands, and played "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Old Rascal You" for Memphis police officers who had arrested him earlier that day—and who never got the joke. And when he sang on Broadway, he kept it real by scatting and singing the blues. "We’ve been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty," Armstrong said of travels with his wife, Lucille. "But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I’ve got sense enough to know that I’m still Louis Armstrong—colored." Click for the full article, or read a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report on a building with deep ties to jazz and black history that's being torn down. (Read more Louis Armstrong stories.)

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