High Notes: When Louis Armstrong Spoke Out

In a long and rich career, Louis Armstrong rarely spoke out about racism. According to Ricky Riccardi, the curator and archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, in Corona, Queens, Armstrong’s lack of verbal and visible action during the early Civil Rights era earned him the label Uncle Tom—not only from Civil Rights leaders at the time but from many of his fellow musician peers.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a keen eye for what was going on around him. And he did indeed speak out on two important occasions. According to Riccardi, Armstrong took a public stance during the school desegregation incident in Little Rock, Arkansas, and again during his trip to South America.

His actions on that latter trip is why the Louis Armstrong House Museum—in what was once Armstrong’s own house—is hosting a special exhibit specifically focused on his South American travels. The exhibit is one of the nine sites that make up the New York’s 5BORO tour for Black History Month this February.

The exhibit, Senor Satchmo: Louis Armstrong in South America, documents the diplomatic power Armstrong gained as he did his first tour of the continent in 1957.

Just a month before the trip, Armstrong “had just criticized the entire U.S. government over the way they handled the Little Rock Nine high school integration crisis,” Riccardi says. When nine black school children attempted to enter the whites-only Little Rock Central High School, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, would have none of that and sent in the National Guard to prevent the black children from entering the school, Riccardi says.

Riots ensued and Armstrong, normally seen as a smiling happy guy, blew up. “He told a reporter, ‘The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell!’” Riccardi says.  Armstrong who had been seen as an unofficial ambassador to the U.S.—gaining the nickname “Ambassador Satch”—cancelled his planned trip to Russia, an important diplomatic event at a time when relationships between the US and Russia were strained.

Riccardi says that Armstrong said, “‘President Eisenhower has no guts for letting Faubus, an uneducated ploughboy run the country!’ He just went off.” Armstrong’s words made headlines.

When Armstrong makes it to South America, it was “pandemonium,” Riccardi says. Everybody wanted a glimpse of Armstrong and a chance to touch him—they loved him, he says. “But he was still feeling a little testy about what had just gone on back home.”

Before the first concert in Buenos Aires, according to Riccardi, Armstrong got a phone call in his hotel room. “It was one of the Ambassadors down in South America making the request that Armstrong end his show by playing the Star Spangled Banner,” Riccardi says.

According to photographer Lisl Steiner who witnessed the event, Riccardi says, Armstrong answered the ambassador with: “You can go fuck yourself, I can’t even get a hotel room back in Times Square.” With that, Armstrong hung up the phone. He didn’t play the national anthem and he never spoke out about racism or the Little Rock incident in public again, according to Riccardi.

Armstrong nonetheless continued making a difference in his own way. Starting in 1947 Armstrong demanded an integrated band. According to Riccardi,  he was the first African American to have a nationally sponsored radio show, in 1937, and the first African American to get featured billing in an otherwise all-white Hollywood movie, in 1936, Riccardi says. And “He has it in his contract that he would not play at any hotel he couldn’t stay at.”

Armstrong had an impact not just on black history but on American history and on world history, Riccardi says. The great trumpeter knew from the beginning that the cards were stacked against him. He grew up poor, sleeping on the floor of his one-bedroom home in a segregated New Orleans.

“This is a man who overcame this background, who overcame poverty and racism,” he says. “He changed the world completely and in doing so became one of the most beloved ambassadors of our country and of our music.”