“I’m Still Louis Armstrong–Colored”: Louis Armstrong and the Civil Rights Era

[Warning: This post contains audio excerpts with graphic language and is not appropriate for younger readers.]

In September 1957, Louis Armstrong put his career on the line by speaking out against the injustice taking place in Little Rock, where Governor Orval Faubus sent in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African American school children from integrating Central High School. “The way they’re treating my people in the south,” Armstrong vented to Larry reporter Lubenow, “the government can go to hell.” Just days later, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to make sure the students made it safely into school. Many believed Armstrong’s words led him to take action. Armstrong’s brave stance made headlines, which he clipped and taped into one of his scrapbooks, as seen above.

In a conversation with Mike Wallace days later, Thurgood Marshall explained that African Americans “have the full support of the Federal Government,” before noting that “there’s a percentage of Negroes that believes the government action came too late.”

He continued, “I do know the Negroes in New York all still say what Satchmo says. They were so happy about Satchmo’s outburst–because he’s the No. 1 Uncle Tom! The worst in the U. S.!”

The No. 1 Uncle Tom. The worst in the U.S.

That is how many prominent African Americans characterized Louis Armstrong in the 1950s and in some circles, it is a sentiment still echoed today, especially by those made uncomfortable by Armstrong’s blinding smile and eye-rolling stage persona.

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Photo by Jack Bradley, 1964. LAHM 2006.1.1839

Offstage, Armstrong was always the life of the party, always delighted in telling offcolor jokes, always had the loudest laugh in the room. But he was sensitive about issues pertaining to his race, staying fully informed even if he didn’t frequently air his opinions to the media. Lucille Armstrong discussed this quality in a 1973 interview, two years after her husband’s passing:

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Photo by Jack Bradley, 1964. LAHM 2006.1.1846

The subject of Louis Armstrong and race would require a dissertation or a book to fully explore the issue with the respect it deserves. However, as part of our “That’s My Home” initiative, we have decided to delve into the subject because as Lucille pointed out, Louis did speak on such matters at home and on the road–occasionally with a tape recorder present. Instead of relying on outside sources or analyses, this post will mainly use the materials Armstrong himself compiled “for posterity,” allowing his own voice to address the complex subject from a variety of angles.

To begin with, Louis was well aware of the accusations of being an “Uncle Tom,” something that angered him greatly. In this clip from the late 1950s, Louis is in his den hosting some friends, including New Orleans native Al Cobette, when one of them brings up a newspaper writer (whose name is unfortunately obscured by the crosstalk), with Louis saying the writer’s work is “embarrassing and detracts.” There’s a pain in Louis’s voice as he says, “And that motherfucker called me an ‘Uncle Tom! Shit. Them son-of-a-bitches, wait til they come to my dance or concert and act a damn fool.”  mentions how this reporter called him an “Uncle Tom”:

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Unidentified man, Louis Armstrong and Al Cobette in Armstrong’s backyard, 1966. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697-18

On this next tape from 1961, Louis vents to his friend Slim Thompson, telling him a story of his godson Archie Sibley, who got into a bloody fistfight defending Louis when an unnamed party called him an “Uncle Tom” after his Little Rock comments. 

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Jack Bradley, Slim Thompson and Louis Armstrong in Armstrong’s kitchen, c. 1965. Photo by Jeann Failows. LAHM 2006.1.1662-08

As can be heard in that clip, Thompson, a prominent actor in the 1930s who shared the screen with Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest, responds by telling Armstrong, “I’ll tell you where it comes from, Pops. All you have to do is break up your face and mug and [n-word] say you Uncle Tom.” Indeed, a lot of criticism of Armstrong did revolve around his onstage mugging, but he also bristled at any such references to being clown, as heard in his rebuttal to this British reporter during an interview in 1959:

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Armstrong was hurt by such accusations of clowning and being an Uncle Tom because he knew what he had to endure to break the barriers he did early in his career. On some tapes, he proudly reminisces about his part in the 1936 film, Pennies from Heaven, the first Hollywood film to give a black actor above-the-title featured billing. Other tapes include episodes of 1937’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Show, the first time an African American hosted a nationally sponsored radio show on a major network.

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Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra broadcasting on WSMB at the Suburban Gardens in 1931. Photo by Villard Paddio. LAHM 1996.39.19

In 1931, Armstrong returned to New Orleans for the first time in nine years, headlining a steady gig at the Suburban Gardens for nearly three months. On opening night, Armstrong was due to broadcast his set on the radio when white announcer Charles Nelson suddenly refused to introduce him on air and abruptly walked off. Armstrong told the story on The Dick Cavett Show in July 1970, receiving a tape of the broadcast, which he quickly added to his  collection. Here’s the audio of this story:

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In 1947, Armstrong broke up his big band and began leading a small group, the All Stars. From day one, Armstrong insisted on his new group being integrated, immediately hiring trombonist Jack Teagarden, who became one of Louis’s best friends. In March 1964, Armstrong hosted Fred Robbins for an interview at his home in Queens in which Robbins brought up Teagarden’s recent passing in January of that year. Listen as Armstrong lovingly recalls the two of the “busting down barriers” on their trips down south:


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Louis Armstrong and His All Stars onstage c. 1948. From left to right: Earl Hines, Velma Middleton, Barney Bigard, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sid Catlett (obscured) and Arvell Shaw. LAHM 1987.14.841

Of course, in the late 1940s, the All Stars still had to play segregated venues, a fact that was later used as ammunition to criticize Armstrong, but he was fond of talking about “the nice taste we leave” by displaying integrated brotherhood on stage every night. In 1950, Armstrong was visited at home by Record Changer editors Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews for an interview. In this clip he talks about how even at segregated dances, the black and white attendees would sometimes get so caught up in the music, they would forget that they were supposed to be separated. “We notice all of that,” he concludes.

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The All Stars also played for integrated audiences in the south, something Armstrong couldn’t have dreamed of when he went on his first southern tours of the early 1930s. He told Ebony about a concert in Miami in 1948, saying, “I walked on stage and there I saw something I thought I’d never see. I saw thousands of people, colored and white on the main floor. Not segregated in one row of whites and another row of Negroes. Just all together–naturally. I thought I was in the wrong state. When you see things like that you know you’re going forward.”

The formation of the All Stars, however, did represent the start of the gradual abandonment of Armstrong’s black audience. A close study of the black press of the 1930s and 1940s illustrates that Armstrong was covered as a hero to his race through much of the Swing Era; in fact, his final engagement as a big band leader was in front of an adoring audience at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. But the inherently old-fashioned trumpet-trombone-clarinet, traditional jazz sound of the All Stars was enough for many African Americans to stop attending Armstrong’s live performances.

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Color photo of the All Stars live in 1949.From left to right: Earl Hines, George Jenkins, Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, Arvell Shaw and Barney Bigard. LAHM 2006.1.375-01

More criticism followed after the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club named Armstrong “King of the Zulus” at the 1949 Mardi Gras. Time magazine was following Armstrong around for a cover story when he got the news and placed his reaction in its opening paragraph: “There’s a thing I’ve dreamed of all my life,” he said, “and I’ll be damned if it don’t look like it’s about to come true–to be King of the Zulus’ Parade. After that I’ll be ready to die.” 

However, Time also knew the controversy surrounding the Zulu tradition, which insisted upon the King wearing a ridiculous costume and blackface makeup. “Among Negro intellectuals, the Zulus and all their doings are considered offensive vestiges of the minstrel-show, Sambo-type Negro,” Time reported, adding, “To Armstrong such touchiness seems absurd, and no one who knows easygoing, non-intellectual Louis will doubt his sincerity.”

Armstrong retained many souvenirs from his reign as King Zulu. From Armstrong’s personal collection, here’s a copy of a New Orleans newspaper that day:

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Cover of the February 28, 1949 issue of the New Orleans Informer. LAHM 1987.7.2-11

A snapshot of him on the float in full Zulu regalia:

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Louis, center, as King of the Zulus at the 1949 Mardi Gras in New Orleans. LAHM 1987.14.3648

And even a recording of radio coverage of the event, including Armstrong being questioned by New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison about his Time claim that he was now “ready to die”:

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One thing Armstrong did not save was a copy of the criticism he received in the black press for his turn as King Zulu. We do have copies of such articles in our Archives, such as this one from the March 12, 1949 edition of The Pittsburgh Courier:

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Copies of Pittsburgh Courier articles on Louis’s reign as King of the Zulus in 1949. LAHM 2008.29.2-05

Many reporters outside of New Orleans were unfamiliar with the deeply satirical traditions of the proudly black Zulu tradition and instead were simply horrified by the specter of Armstrong in blackface. Some black fans saw those images and did not return to Armstrong’s camp (Dizzy Gillespie referred to Louis as a “plantation character that so many of us…younger men…resent” shortly after the 1949 Mardi Gras.)

That marked the first time Armstrong received largely negative coverage in the black press. The next time occurred in early 1952 after the release of his new Decca version of his theme song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” recorded in November 1951 with an arrangement by Gordon Jenkins. Written by three African Americans, Otis and Leon Rene and Clarence Muse, it included the epithet “darkies,” which was sadly not uncommon for a pop tune of the early 1930s. Armstrong usually performed it as a short instrumental theme but on the 1951 version, he sang it in full–including one utterance of “darkies” (it originally featured two).

This created an uproar in the black press, with some papers printing photos of African Americans at a bar in Harlem destroying copies of the record, while others demanded a boycott. Decca responded by saying they issued it as an “accident.” To remedy the situation, Armstrong was called back to the studio to re-record the bridge, now backed by Victor Young’s Orchestra, changing the offending word to “people.” 

Armstrong was angry at the backlash in the black press and vented his frustrations at the remake recording session. In this next clip, Armstrong finished reading a magazine article about his part in the film Glory Alley, with the end of the article referencing the “hot water” Armstrong was in for his version of “Sleepy Time.”


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The fidelity is lacking so if you cannot make it out, in the last 20 seconds, Armstrong finishes reading the article and immediately comments, “Isn’t that a damn shame?” He then recounts the remake session with Victor Young’s Orchestra, saying, “I asked them when I walked in, I say, “Good morning, gentlemen!’ I say, ‘What do I have to call them black son-of-a-bitches this morning?’ And they fell out!”

Armstrong ended up cutting out the full article on Glory Alley and added it to one of his scrapbooks in 1952:

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Interestingly, the article alluded to some trouble during the filming, stating, “On set, Louis did not find everything to his liking.” It didn’t go any further than to say it was only because he couldn’t play his trumpet, but Armstrong went into more detail in a taped conversation with Benny Hamilton in Portland, Oregon shortly after the filming ended. In the following clip, Armstrong tells the story of a young call boy who respectfully addressed “Mr. Meeker” and “Ms. Caron” when it was time for the white stars to come to set but instead kidded Armstrong, calling him “Satchmo” and mock-threatening that they were going to get Harry James to replace him. Armstrong’s response was explosive, to say the least, and only survives because of his foresight to tell it on tape. (The name he stumbles on towards the end is Dore Schary, MGM Head of Production.)

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Though that recording comes from Portland and the theme of this blog is “That’s My Home” and focused on Armstrong’s time spent in Queens, we still feel it’s worth sharing that and other excerpts from that same tape because they give an insight into the side of Louis that Lucille described in the earlier interview excerpt, informed and eager to discuss what was happening in the black community when among friends. 

Armstrong and Hamilton also dissected the January 10, 1952 issue of Jet magazine on tape, opening with the cover story on “Negro Stars Who Refuse to Pass”:

Jet January 10 1952

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Armstrong was inspired enough to clip out the photo spread inside the magazine and also include it in one of his scrapbooks:

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Armstrong then brought up Stepin Fetchit, who remained a friend (he also appears on one of Louis’s tapes in a conversation taped at the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles), but even Armstrong did not like reading this quote in Jet:

Stepin Jet

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The story of jamming with the Roman New Orleans jazz band remained one of Armstrong’s favorites for the rest of his life. He had played Italy in 1934 and didn’t hear much of his music during that trip but to return 15 years later and find a young band of Italian musicians playing the music of King Oliver and the Hot Five was a proud indication of how far his music had spread. Also, “All is one” is a pretty good summary of Armstrong’s personal philosophy.

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Louis, greeted in Rome by the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band on October 26, 1949.  LAHM 2012.40.31

Armstrong and Hamilton then turned their attention to Josephine Baker, who made headlines throughout 1951 for protesting the Stork Club in Manhattan for not serving her and for insisting the Copa City nightclub in Miami abolish its segregation policy during her run there. Baker is still celebrated for waging these Civil Rights battles but it’s telling that Armstrong felt she was just coming to America to “raise hell” and “stir up the nation.” 

Armstrong was not alone in his feelings. Edith Sampson, the first black United States delegate appointed to the United Nations, criticized Baker in the same issue of Jet.

Josephine Baker Jet

Here is Armstrong and Hamilton discussing Sampson and Baker:

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 “If she had talent, she wouldn’t raise no hell at all,” Armstrong says. “She wouldn’t have to open her mouth. Her ability would speak for itself. See what I man? You can take anybody that’s inferior and raise a whole lot of goddamned hell for no reason at all.” Clearly, Armstrong’s initial reactions to Civil Rights protests of the early 1950s was that they just caused more ill will between blacks and whites in America.

One year later, Armstrong made a tape with three unidentified friends in Cincinnati. While discussing issues of race, one of the women present praised Baker. Armstrong sprang into action, in an especially testy mood, demanding at one point, “ANSWER THAT!”

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“Answer that!” An angry Armstrong backstage in Newark, NJ in 1963. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1655-32

At the end of that clip, Armstrong lists himself, Duke Ellington and Charlie Shavers as three examples of African Americans who could “do more for this fucking country than all of your goddamned Josephine Bakers.” Trumpeter Shavers is no longer a household name but he was important for integrating the studio musician scene, in addition to being featured by popular white orchestras like Tommy Dorsey’s. None of these musicians made public protests like Baker did, yet all had broken down barriers because “of their ability” as Armstrong said. Thus, it is not surprising that many Civil Rights activists thought Armstrong was behind the times, even though he had been breaking barriers in his own way for 30 years at that point.

Armstrong also scornfully refers to the lack of support and frequent criticism he received from other African Americans, saying, “Your brother ain’t going to help you get nowhere.”  Later in 1953, Armstrong expounded on this in a conversation with friends at home in Queens, using the comparison to a “barrel of crabs.” First, though, he talks about Jelly Roll Morton wearing a diamond in his tooth and taking credit away from Armstrong for scat singing, something covered on this site last month.

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Armstrong undeniably more popular with white audiences in this period, but that doesn’t mean his interactions with white fans were always smooth sailing. In this tape from 1952, Louis talks about meeting a sailor the night before who told him that he was raised to “hate Negroes” but he was “just crazy” about Armstrong. Louis’s friend, an African American driver named Prince Gary, takes over to talk about how his attempt to talk to the sailor was rebuffed. 

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Clippings from Armstrong’s 1952 tour of Hawaii, as taped in one of his scrapbooks. LAHM1987_08_20_021

Some time later, Armstrong brought the story up again on another tape of an after hours hang with alto saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Vinson opens with a story about a white fan from Canada who insisted on harmonizing on a song with Velma Middleton before erupting into the most racist song imaginable. Both Armstrong and Vinson laugh as they compare stories of nervous white fans barely able to suppress racist thoughts in the presence of African Americans they admired.

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By 1957, Armstrong was hitting new peaks of popularity as “Ambassador Satch,” with hit records like “Mack the Knife” and Ella and Louis and appearances in blockbuster films such as High Society. But during a one-nighter in front of a segregated audience in Knoxville, Tennessee on February 20, 1957, members of the White Citizens Council protested the venue hiring an integrated band to perform in front of an audience that included 1,000 African Americans by throwing a stick of dynamite at the concert hall. The explosion was “deafening” according to newspaper reports. Armstrong joked, “It’s all right, folks, it’s just the phone,” before continuing on with his show. The news made headlines, one of which made it into one of his scrapbooks (humorously juxtaposed against another article with the headline “Satchmo ‘Blows Up’ London Philharmonic”):

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Armstrong’s words after the concert also made headlines, which he didn’t save, but do exist in our Archives. Asked about the incident, Armstrong said, “Man, the horn don’t know anything about it.” And asked if he would continue to play the South, Armstrong responded, “Man, I’ll play anywhere they’ll listen.”  In a follow-up piece, Armstrong said he was misquoted, but his initial response still inspired more vitriol from many in the black press, including the Baltimore Afro-American writing, “Even after considering the pro and con arguments on Satchmo Armstrong, this space can’t shake the feeling that the day of the Bert Williams entertainers is passed…that the entertainer who has a real talent doesn’t have to use an Uncle Tom grin and carry his hat in his hand in order to sell it….that he doesn’t insure his place in the world by pleasing a few, isolated Dixie bigots.” Writing in Esquire in May 1957, Dizzy Gillespie didn’t reference Knoxville, but he did use the platform to once again label Armstrong an “Uncle Tom.”

This all set the stage for the incidents in Little Rock in September of that year. Most Armstrong fans should know the basics of the story, how he vented to young reporter Larry Lubenow in Grand Forks, North Dakota on September 17, 1957, the full details of which were reported by David Margolick in the New York Times in this 2007 article. But what remains little known is Armstrong was already talking about Little Rock for well over a week before his Grand Forks comments.

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“A Special Reel Continued.” LAHM 1987.3.311

In his collection–on a reel marked “A Special Reel Continued,” signalling the importance of this artifact–Armstrong taped radio interviews he did in Spokane, Washington on September 8 and in Edmonton, Canada on September 10. Both interviews were done for radio broadcast but neither made headlines. Here is an excerpt from the Spokane interview; because of the abysmal sound quality of this clip, we are including a transcript below.

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Announcer: Louie, I want to get away from music for just a moment, not because I want to but because there’s another subject which is more on the serious side and of course, you’ve heard about the publicity about the integration problems in the south and right now, especially in Arkansas. I think I know but what’s your reaction to that?

Louis: Well, I think it’s a damn shame for people to be so deceitful and two-faced. I mean, that Governor, I mean, I bet you right now, he’s got a little colored mammy there nursing his baby. You know what I mean? Why would he want to do all that—you know, some people will cut their right arm off for publicity and that’s all I think he’s doing. You know? Deep in his heart, I bet he’s not that cruel. You know? And the people that agree with him, every one of them has got some colored woman, sitting there, eating their food and everything else. They love ‘em. There ain’t a white man in the South that don’t have some colored man he’s crazy about. So when you see those things like that, I just sum it up, I say, well, it’s one of them okey-doke’s, that’s all it is. That’s the slang way of saying it’s a shame. I mean, we’re going to have to go through that all of our lives—now we’ll play, go right down there now, he’ll be the first one to applaud our music.

Announcer: Do you think that things will pick up, I mean, ease up down there?

Louis: Well, it’s got to because the nation alone, I mean, this guy there is so cold-blooded, it’s a shame just to keep it up, they can’t stand it. I mean, how can they rest well at night, thinking they have to go through that tomorrow.? The kids, they’re only doing what their parents told them. They wouldn’t do it.

Announcer: Well, have you any idea, Louie, is this growing pains of the United States? Do you think we’ll grow out of this sort of thing?  

Louis: I think we will because it’s much better than it was 10 years ago, you know, but why do we have to suffer so much for people to realize that we’re all right, you know what I mean? The government trusts everybody but the spades—I mean, the colored people—I mean, I don’t know why but when they throw us in there, we throw our heart in it and everything cause we’re just doing it for our country. And when we look around at this fellow that he trust you, that’s the one that will stick you in the back with a dagger. 

Announcer: Well, it seems, Louie, that, anyway on the musical level, we tend to be equal.

Louis: That’s what I mean. Everything that we play is for our country, that’s the way I look at it. That’s right. If I go to Canada and play ‘God Save the Queen,’ I play ‘The Star Spangled Banner right behind it, you understand?

Announcer: Louie, very well put and I thank you very much for talking with me today. Louie Satchmo Armstrong.

Armstrong continued the same line of thinking in Edmonton two days later, but seemed to catch the interviewer off guard, who changed the subject soon after Armstrong made it clear he was not happy. “You can’t smile through all that,” Armstrong said. “So you know I’m not laughing today. I don’t feel so good about that mess.”

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Photo by Jan Lukas. LAHM 1987.14.3386

Seven days later, without any change in the “mess” in Little Rock, Armstrong found himself exploding to Lubenow. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” Armstrong erupted. He called Governor Faubus a “motherfucker,” which Lubenow changed to “uneducated plow boy” in the final version, and added that President Eisenhower was “two faced” and had “no guts” in letting Faubus control the situation.

Armstrong’s words made headlines around the world. When racist road manager Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie told the press that Armstrong was “sorry that he spouted off,” Armstrong picked up on the phone and doubled down on his initial statements, resulting in this Pittsburgh Courier article that he taped into one of his scrapbooks:

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Armstrong also kept tabs on who supported him, clipping out another article about Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Jackie Robinson agreeing with Armstrong (if not quite supporting his statement; Horne says she wouldn’t criticize Eisenhower because she was a Democrat and “would feel much freer to criticize a President of my own party.” Times have changed….).

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The scrapbook Armstrong affixed that story to is not in the best of shape and a residue of glue is all that survives where some clips used to live. The second part of that article is no longer part of Armstrong’s scrapbook, but for completeness, here is the rest of it thanks to Newspapers.com.

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Also found in that same September 28, 1957 issue of The Pittsburgh Courier was this stunning defense of Armstrong’s comments by Evelyn Cunningham:

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Cunningham’s column was something of an anomaly;  Armstrong’s comments seemed to inspire more attacks from all sides. White columnists called for boycotts; Jim Bishop asked, “What have you done for your people, except hurt them?” Jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie went silent (publicly; privately, he admired Armstrong’s stance and befriended him after they became neighbors in Queens). But many figures in the African American community blasted Armstrong’s choice of words, including the aforementioned Thurgood Marshall and also Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr. Armstrong added Davis’s comments to his scrapbook, too.

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Armstrong also managed to save the audio of something he did on television on September 30, 1957. Many in the media wanted him kicked off of a scheduled appearance on Crescendo, an all-star episode of the DuPont Show of the Week; in fact, DuPont wanted him removed, too, but CBS refused to do that. On air, Armstrong sat in a rocking chair and played a solo chorus of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” quite an appropriate choice given the situation. Towards the end of his chorus, Armstrong managed to insert a quote from “The Star Spangled Banner” into the old spiritual, a searing commentary on all the trouble he had seen in a country in which he supposedly served as an “Ambassador of Goodwill.”

After the show aired, Armstrong received a set of acetate discs of the soundtrack of the program. When he dubbed it to tape, he got to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” copied it in full–then immediately stopped the tape, rewound it and dubbed only the second part again so the “Star Spangled Banner” quote would be punctuated for posterity. Here is that moment on tape:

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In recent years, video of this moment was uploaded to YouTube:

Armstrong remained proud of his stance against Little Rock and was happy to keep talking about it. On tour in Israel in 1959, Armstrong taped a conversation with African American entertainer Babe Wallace and his wife. Wallace complimented Armstrong’s Little Rock statements, as heard in this excerpt from their conversation:

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In case you can’t make it out Louis immediately says, “Caught ‘em napping.” He talks about initial reactions from black friends to “stop talking about white folks that way,” but Louis’s response to that is, “Kiss my ass.” He continues tongue-in-cheek, “I ain’t supposed to have no sense no how,” before recreating part of his statement, “What you want me to tell these people when I go over there, it’s all right? Bullshit!”

Alone with Wallace, Armstrong even praised his manager Joe Glaser for his support through the publicity turmoil. Even in Evelyn Cunningham’s op-ed piece above, Glaser was quoted as saying, “I’m with him all the way” and defending him against accusations of being an Uncle Tom. But those feelings were short-lived. By the time of a 1960 interview, when a reporter brought up Little Rock, Glaser grew “livid” and referred to it  as “the only mistake [Armstrong] ever made.” Clearly, Glaser passed the word to Armstrong that similar talk must stop immediately. In our Archives, two interviews survive, one from 1959 and another from 1968, in which a reporter asked Armstrong about Little Rock and each time, he answered by saying he didn’t want to talk about “yesterday’s news.” 

Armstrong, cautioned by Glaser and most likely hurt by the backlash from the black community and the silence from the jazz world, continued to publicly evade questions related to issues of race throughout most of the 1960s. However, when he did speak about it, it was always profound and right to the point. Two of the strongest examples were a pair of Ebony profiles, “Daddy, How This Country Has Changed” from 1961 and “The Reluctant Millionaire” from 1964. Armstrong even inscribed a copy of the former for Glaser:

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Both articles are worth quoting from considering the theme of this post. “Some folks, even some of my own people have felt that I’ve been ‘soft’ on the race issue. Some have even accused me of being an Uncle Tom, of not being ‘aggressive.’ How can they say that? I’ve pioneered in breaking the color line in many Southern states (Georgia, Mississippi, Texas) with mixed bands–Negro and white. I’ve taken a lot of abuse, put up with a lot of jazz, even been in some pretty dangerous spots through no fault of my own for almost forty years.” 

Armstrong even brought up Little Rock, saying, “In that Little Rock statement, I didn’t only mean Little Rock. I meant that there was a bad spirit going around. It wasn’t safe for many Negroes to take a walk with their girl friends without being beaten up. There was lots of that going around. People forget that we took up guns, too. And they didn’t back-fire. The trouble is we’re not trusted enough. One Negro does something and 50,000 have to suffer for it.”

In the 1964 follow-up, author Charles L. Sanders noticed a “melancholy” look on Armstrong as he spoke these words: “Look, Pops. I come out of a part of the South where it ain’t no way in the world you can forget you’re colored. My own mother went through hell down there. My Grandma used to have tears in her eyes when she’d talk about the lynchings and all that crap. Even myself, I’ve seen things that would make my flesh craw. But it wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it…and keep on breathing.”

“You know, some times I sit around the house and think about all the places me and Lucille have been. You name the country and we’ve just about been there. We’ve been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty. We’ve had an audience with the Pope. We’ve even slept in Hitler’s bed. But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I’ve got sense enough to know that I’m still Louis Armstrong–colored.”

In the 1964 article, Armstrong admitted he didn’t take part in marches, saying, “But me, if I’d be out somewhere marching with a sign and some cat hits me in my chops, I’m finished. A trumpet man gets hit in the chops and he’s through. If my people don’t dig me the way I am, I’m sorry. If they don’t go along with me giving my dough instead of marching, well–every cat’s entitled to his opinion. But that’s the way I figure I can help out and still keep working. If they let me alone on this score I’ll do my part in my way.”

Joe Glaser allowed Armstrong some more freedom to speak candidly in those two pieces since Ebony’s target audience was black. But in 1965, Armstrong once again made headlines after watching the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” during Martin Luther King’s march on Selma, Alabama. About to embark on his first tour behind the Iron Curtain, Armstrong was grilled in Denmark about why he didn’t take part in such marches. “I don’t march but I send my contributions to the Negro organizations. Let the others march.They would only smash my face so that I could not use my trumpet.” When asked if he really believed that a figure of his stature would actually get beaten, Armstrong responded, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.

Once again, his comments made headlines around the world. Once again, Armstrong saved a few “for posterity,” including this one:”

1987.7.15-04 Selma
LAHM 1987.7.15-04

Two years later, Armstrong was trailed by journalist Larry L. King for several days for a profile in Harper’s. King admitted that Armstrong “was not eager to talk Civil Rights,” at first speaking in generalities. But one morning, Armstrong brought up the subject and went all in, discussing the atrocities he saw on the road, telling stories of being held at gunpoint, bragging about how much he pioneered (“Nobody much remembers that these days,” he laments), knocking Joe Glaser’s attempts to downplay the past (“But then Papa Joe didn’t go through it. He was white”) and offering a frank assessment of the legalization of marijuana and how that wouldn’t help the “poor bastards” who were already arrested and served their time for it. There’s even a retelling of the story of the sailor from Lubbock, Texas, with some different details. It’s important to note that when Louis Armstrong died in 1971, Lucille had copies of this article printed up and passed out at his funeral.

Everybody's Louie 2008_5_36-76_006
To read the complete article, visit our Digital Collections page by clicking on it. LAHM 1987.6.35
Everybody's Louie 2008_5_36-76_008
To read the complete article, visit our Digital Collections page by clicking on it. LAHM 1987.6.35

Two years later, Armstrong found himself in intensive care for the second time in a matter of months for heart and kidney trouble. Mortality was staring him in the eye. While at Beth Israel Hospital, both Joe Glaser and drummer Zutty Singleton suffered strokes; Glaser did not recover. In a deep depression, Armstrong thought of the kindness of the Jewish Karnofsky family while growing up in New Orleans–and used it to lament the way he was treated by his own people. In page after page, Armstrong lashed out in a way that still makes modern day readers wince. Context is key and these excerpts are more the rumblings of a depressed, dying man than as representative of Armstrong’s feelings throughout his entire life, but they do illustrate how deep the pain was felt. 

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The complete manuscript can be read in “Louis Armstrong In His Own Words,” edited by Thomas Brothers. LAHM 1987.2.1

Eventually, Armstrong was released from the hospital and much of his depression subsided as he returned home to his hobbies of making reel-to-reel tapes and practicing the trumpet every day. At one point in that manuscript, he writes, “The year is 1970,” meaning he was still working on it, but by the second half of the document, he’s reminiscing about old New Orleans musicians, having purged his darkest feelings in the hospital, as Brent Hayes Edwards has discussed in his excellent book, Epistrophies

Back home, Armstrong seemed to find a deep connection to the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Armstrong long supported King with donations and after King was assassinated in 1968, Armstrong was one of four black stars who threatened to boycott the Academy Awards unless they postponed the ceremony in King’s honor.

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LAHM 1987.2.23

Armstrong had recorded coverage of King’s funeral off of television but he didn’t get around to cataloging it until the time he spent convalescing at home in 1969 and 1970. At that time, Armstrong cataloged King’s funeral, along with some of his speeches, indexing it all in his tape catalog and writing King’s name on the outside of the tape box.

Box 1987.3.370 Front (Box 368F L)
LAHM 1987.3.370

In early 1970, producer Bob Thiele visited Armstrong at home to toss around ideas for an album, including having him record the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” “Louis’ eyes lit up,” Thiele recalled. “He reached up and pulled down a tape of the Martin Luther King funeral that he’d made. We played it and he said he loved the way the choir sang the piece during the service.” They decided to record it, with Armstrong getting a copy of the sheet music to prepare.

1987_13_597 We Shall Overcome cover
LAHM 1987.13.597

In May 1970, Thiele recorded Armstrong pouring his soul into the song, backed by a big band performing an Oliver Nelson arrangement and a choir made up of the many guests that attended the session. Ralph J. Gleason quoted an unnamed attendee of the session, who said, “Louis gave that song, which even if it is the hymn of the Sixties’ integration movement, is still a tattered and threadbare song, almost a cliche, the kind of vocal sound you would expect from the celestial chorus.” Other eyewitnesses said Armstrong had tears in his eyes as he sang it. Thiele hoped for enough magic to make “We Shall Overcome” a hit. It didn’t happen at the time but as of this writing, a YouTube video of the recording currently has over one million views.

In some ways, Armstrong’s relationship with and reception from the black community changed after his hospital stay. He started the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which utilized the services of African American publicist Lloyd Von Blaine, whom he grew close to, even making a reel-to-reel tape with him that was so hilarious, Armstrong sent dozens of copies of it to friends around the world. The jazz community, scared to have come so close to losing Armstrong in 1969, came out in full force in 1970, especially in a special edition of Down Beat published for Armstrong’s 70th birthday. In it, Dan Morgenstern, Harriet Choice and Jack Bradley and gathered glowing quotes about Armstrong in honor of his 70th birthday, filling pages with words from Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and more. Armstrong appeared on The Flip Wilson Show, then the hottest black show on television, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” with Wilson’s character Reverend Leroy. And when Armstrong passed away in 1971, surviving footage and photographs of the crowd gathering outside Corona Congregational Church and those visiting his body lying in state at the Park Avenue Armory show an overwhelmingly black presence. 

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Armstrong’s neighborhood in Corona, Queens on the day of his funeral in 1971. LAHM 1987.7.22-94

Even when it came to obituaries, the overwhelming majority of the tributes from African American writers such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and composer-educator Carman Moore were positive remembrances. Most of the writers who felt the need to knock Armstrong’s perceived “Uncle Tom” ways, such as Craig MacGregor in the New York Times, were now white. 

Carman Moore only met Louis once, at the 1970 Louis Armstrong and His Friends session where Armstrong recorded “We Shall Overcome.” He was well aware of Armstrong’s negative reputation in the black community and took the time to eloquently defend him in a Village Voice tribute that is worth quoting in depth:

“I do not know how Louis Armstrong saw (conceptualized) himself except that he showed signs of happiness and that he did call himself Satchmo, whatever that undignified-sounding term really meant and meant to him. Black Americans have always had a heavy perception tax to pay. To see oneself clearly and in the real USA situation has been made difficult, and when you do get a look (insight), it makes your eyes smart and the ducts tear. Many Blacks have had occasion to be embarrassed by Louis Armstrong’s public poses as photographed and phonographed over the decades–the highlighting of lips, the rolling eyes, the teeth prominent, the accent, the seeming subordination of self in integrated movie or show situations. Was Louis engineered by white power and promises into epitomizing one version of the harmless Black man so that Black youth of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s might see it and aspire to be entertaining but still?” ”

“Some of the youthful brothers on the corner say that Armstrong was not self aware or he would not have behaved as he did. I do not agree. I am sorry at times that he shared so much of his true grits–revealed so much soul to everybody, which also let many cruel Black-haters in to enjoy the rampant Black American defiant exuberant thing which Armstrong exuded. Those bigots and this white public (1935-c. 1971) have held up many an Armstrong natural mannerism and characteristic and and labeled them ‘available for ridicule.’ How sick must a culture be to ridicule thick lips, flashing eyes, and oily black skin? Whatever Louis Armstrong did or didn’t do about civil rights (he involved himself quietly) or whatever romantic or emotionally broad movie roles he was not offered–he never, repeat, he never tried to be white, un-Satchmo, or un-Soulful. He must have been tempted in the desperate decades (c. 1900-1960) of prejudice when hostility towards Blacks was publicly insisted upon by the state (now it benignly neglects).”

“Well, he grew famous before media coverage became omniscient. Maybe he never thought of perusing himself. Maybe that’s how he remained real until his death. Maybe he did take a look at himself–and one at everybody else, and then laugh/cried and went on….”

“I saw him cut a vocal album last summer for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label. Miles, Ornette, and many other new people attended it and saw through the control room glass how real old soul genius could sport itself and if you were insecure enough to be embarrassed you could take your untogether self and go to hell. I talked with him during one of the breaks. He was a beautiful old man. I was pleased to find that. Later I found that someone had taken my picture with Louis. I received it in the mail and put it on my wall. The perceptual problems are vast. I shall not deal with that in public.”

The “someone” who took the photo was Jack Bradley and that photo is now part of the Jack Bradley Collection in our Archives.

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Louis Armstrong, Bob Thiele, Carman Moore and unidentified, May 1970. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645c

Still, there was work to be done in educating the world about the real Louis Armstrong and that work fell on the able shoulders of Lucille Armstrong. By passing out the aforementioned Harper’s article at the funeral, she insured that any showbiz folks attending would get a real glimpse of what was in her husband’s mind. She saved all of his tapes and scrapbooks and writings and without that foresight, Armstrong scholarship would have suffered tremendously. Posts like this could not have been written without the gifts Louis and Lucille left for us. 

Lucille spent her widowhood devoted to Louis’s legacy and and to fulfilling causes that were important to both of them, especially when it came to their beloved neighborhood of Corona, Queens. On May 6, 1982, Lucille was awarded the “Liberty Bell” from the Bar Association for her community service work. This is a copy of her acceptance speech, referencing what she and Louis did during the Civil Rights era, as well as her devotion to “better the lives of the people around me regardless of color, race or sex.”

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LAHM 1987.10.133
1987_10_133-02 Lucille Speech 2
LAHM 1987.10.133

It’s fitting to give Lucille the last word because she eloquently summed up all of the above in an interview on NBC’s “Positively Black” in 1972. After host Gus Heningburg questioned Lucille about how the black community perceived Louis, this was her response:

Click here to create a free account and listen to the rest of this tape on our Digital Collections site
LAHM 1987.3.715

“A prophet is without honor in his own country.” That is a perfect way of summing up this complex look at Louis Armstrong’s complex history with race and his relationship with the African American community. In many ways, this post just scratched the surface so please don’t take this as a definitive look at everything that falls under this umbrella–his film work, his stage work, Dave and Iola Brubeck’s important work The Real Ambassadors,his boycott of New Orleans, his tape with Lloyd Von Blaine and much more could easily be added or spun into different posts.

But first, after eight of these long, content-heavy post, we feel it is time to give Lucille Armstrong her full due and will explore her life in detail next Monday.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

3 thoughts on ““I’m Still Louis Armstrong–Colored”: Louis Armstrong and the Civil Rights Era

  1. This is a remarkable post. Thank you. The recording of “We Shall Overcome” brought tears to my eyes. Louis Armstrong was a living saint who once walked among us. I mean that in the most literal sense possible.

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