Black History Month – Louis Armstrong and Robinson Center

louis-armstrong3Louis Armstrong played Robinson Auditorium several times during his career.  He also played other venues in Little Rock.

As the Civil Rights movement started taking hold in the mid-1950s, many African American entertainers were vocal in their support.  Armstrong stayed silent.  Until, that is, September 17, 1957.  That night, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he blasted President Dwight Eisenhower for his lack of action to make Governor Orval Faubus obey the law.  This was in an interview conducted by a 21 year old University of North Dakota journalism student named Larry Lubenow.

Journalist David Margolick wrote about the incident in The New York Times in September 2007 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School.  He recounted how the story, written for the Grand Forks Herald, was picked up all over the country.  The entire Margolick piece can be read here.  Margolick tells that when Armstrong was given the chance to back off the comments, he asserted that he meant all of it.

On September 24, 1957, the night that the 101st Airborne was being mobilized to come into Little Rock, Armstrong sent Eisenhower a telegram again criticizing him for lack of action.  He used colorful language which sarcastically spoofed the “Uncle Tom” moniker which some of his critics had bestowed when they felt he was not doing enough for Civil Rights.  The Eisenhower Presidential Library has a copy of that telegram.  The incident between Satchmo and Ike was the basis for two different plays: Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf and Ishmael Reed’s The C Above C Above High C.

Armstrong would again play a part in Little Rock’s Civil Rights history.  In September 1966, he played the first major concert in Robinson Auditorium that was before a fully integrated audience.  Since the early 1960s, there had been a few sporadic concerts which had been before integrated audiences. But the policy of the Auditorium Commission remained that the building was to be segregated.  Following the approval of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, public facilities had to be integrated. Louis Armstrong played before a full house at Robinson Auditorium that night.  With Orval Faubus still Arkansas’ governor, Armstrong was not too interested in staying in Little Rock very long. He left town quickly after the concert was concluded.