Remembering Louis Armstrong's Little Rock Protest

In September 1957, Louis Armstrong canceled his tour of the Soviet Union to protest the injustices in Little Rock, Arkansas. Scott Simon talks with Larry Lubenow, the then-student journalist who broke the story 50 years ago.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In September 1957, Louis Armstrong cancelled his tour of the Soviet Union because of events in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School there. But when our Orval Faubus supported the Arkansas National Guard to bar the door, Louis Armstrong decided he didn't want to make a tour of the Soviet Union sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Larry Lubenow is a reporter at that time, and he broke this story. He joins us now from member station KUT in Austin.

Mr. Lubenow, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. LARRY LUBENOW (Former Student-Journalist; Larry Lubenow & Associates): It's a pleasure to be here and to be a part of this.

SIMON: You were a journalism student then, weren't you?

Mr. LUBENOW: Yes, I was a senior in college, moonlighting at the paper.

SIMON: You were working part time for the Grand Forks Herald, right?

Mr. LUBENOW: Yes, I was.

SIMON: And how did you happen to talk to Louis Armstrong?

Mr. LUBENOW: I got a call from the editors that they wanted a reporter to go down to talk to Louis about music. I asked one question about music. And then I asked Louis if he knew that he was staying in the hometown of Judge Ronald Davies who made the decision at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Little Rock. And he said he didn't. Then he went off.

SIMON: He had some strong words for people in the U.S. government then, didn't he?

Mr. LUBENOW: Well, even stronger than that which was printed. He used expletives when he talked about Ike and John Foster Dulles and also Orval Faubus.

SIMON: What did he call Governor Faubus?

Mr. LUBENOW: Well, I can't repeat it, not on NPR. It's…

SIMON: I thought it was just an ignorant plowboy. You can repeat that.

Mr. LUBENOW: Well, that's what we went with, and Louis said, fine, go with it.

SIMON: So let me get this straight. He didn't actually say ignorant plowboy. He said something else and you said, let's see if we can agree on…

Mr. LUBENOW: Yes.

SIMON: …a epithet here.

Mr. LUBENOW: He said he's a no-good mother.

SIMON: And he probably didn't mean mother. I see what you mean.

Mr. LUBENOW: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And so what did you say? Mr. Armstrong, give me something that I can put in the paper?

Mr. LUBENOW: Yeah, I sure did.

SIMON: What did Louis Armstrong say in the interview about not going to the Soviet Union, do you recall?

Mr. LUBENOW: Well, he said that as far as he was concerned, Ike and the government could go to hell. And he sang his version of the "Star-spangled Banner" to me with very dirty lyrics - oh, say can you mothers - M-F-see, by the M-F early light? He was very mad.

SIMON: Yeah. I don't think I've ever heard that version.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUBENOW: Yeah.

SIMON: What happened to your story? Did you know you had a scoop?

Mr. LUBENOW: I broke the story and I got all of $3.50 for the story, I think. Missed the concert and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUBENOW: Because I was busy putting out the story.

SIMON: Now, when President Eisenhower eventually did order the 101st Airborne into Little Rock…

Mr. LUBENOW: Yes.

SIMON: …to integrate the schools.

Mr. LUBENOW: Yes, he did. And some people think that it was because of Louis' words.

SIMON: Mr. Lubenow, awfully nice talking to you.

Mr. LUBENOW: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Speaking with us from Austin, Texas, Larry Lubenow.

And this is NPR News.

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