Saturday, July 05, 2008

October 1957: University of Arkansas Student Senate Disinvites Louis Armstrong

In a previous post on cultural diplomacy, I referred to Penny Von Eschen's book, Satchmo Blows Up the World. At the time, I had not read it, although I had read Von Eschen's article, "Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz, Race, and Empire during the Cold War," in Wagnleitner and May. Now I have read the book--that's how I spent part of yesterday, the 4th of July. (Go here for an interview with Von Eschen about the book.)

One of the tidbits I learned in this enormously informative book has to do with the University of Arkansas, where I have been teaching since 1996. And it has to do with the incident referred to in the earlier post. I quote again from the New York Times article I referred to earlier:
[Louis] Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce school-integration laws. 'The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,' he said. 'It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.'

Armstrong also had some choice words for Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who had ordered National Guard units to Little Rock's Central High, to prevent African American students from entering the school. In an interview with student journalist Larry Loubenow in North Dakota, Armstrong called Faubus a "no-good motherfucker," which was toned down for mass consumption in the press as "uneducated plowboy."

Eisenhower eventually did send troops in to Litle Rock, and Armstrong praised his actions. But he continued to blast Faubus. In October 1957, Armstrong and his manager gave an interview, in which they discussed the fact that Satchmo was booked to play at the University of Arkansas, where had played at the U of A two years earlier. ("A History of the Arkansas Traveler," an account of the U of A student newspaper.) According to Von Eschen, Armstrong added that he'd rather play in the USSR than in Arkansas, since in Arkansas, "Faubus might hear a couple of notes--and he doesn't deserve that." In response, the University of Arkansas Student Senate canceled the concert.

Here's how the "A History of the Arkansas Traveler," an account of the U of A student newspaper, tells the story:

The Traveler reported that Armstrong’s manager in New York had referred to the new contract as “a great moral victory” and that Armstrong had told the press that he resented that Governor Faubus would be listening “to those beautiful notes that will come from my horn...He doesn’t deserve them.”

The statements caused a disturbance among the white students and administrators. Jack Davis, the president of Associated Students, and D. Whitney Halladay, the dean of students, said they did not expect an entertainment contract to be used as a “springboard for ill-advised statements” or that it would involve the student body, the university or the state in controversy. The Student Senate met that day and voted to rescind the contract with Armstrong and was backed up by President John Tyler Caldwell. In The Traveler’s first editorial page following the incident, the editor supported the Student Senate’s “prompt efficient action” in canceling Armstrong’s contract:

Hasty and ill-advised ventures have in the past given the University a shaky reputation with many people downstate. To uphold the Armstrong contract would be taken by many as approval of derogatory remarks about Arkansas and its chief executive. This, the University cannot afford. ... Your senate proved to be more than a group whose chief function is to select queens and send delegates to conventions. It showed itself to be a clear thinking governing body with the best interests of the school and state at heart.

The "History" goes on to report on a letter to The Traveler that said that this step put Arkansas in the same league as Mississippi and the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the dis-invitation doesn't seem all that dated or "sooooo nineteen-fifties" to me, given all the recent cancellation of Desmond Tutu's scheduled lecture at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota (because he is too critical of Israel), and all the other sorts of campaigns against scholars like Nadia Abou El-Haj, Joseph Massad, and Norman Finkelstein. What is, unfortunately, a bit unusual about this case is that it is one in which a major, much-beloved popular musician takes a political stand, and takes heat, and loses money, for it.

Jazz great Charles Mingus (who also served as a jazz ambassador) had these choice comments about Faubus, in the lyrics from his great 1960 recording, "Fables of Faubus":

Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us! Oh, Lord, no more swastikas! Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan! Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie. Governor Faubus! Why is he so sick and ridiculous? He won’t permit integrated schools. Then he’s a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists! Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan) Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond. -Faubus-Rockefeller-Eisenhower Why are they so sick and ridiculous? Two, four, six, eight: They brainwash and teach you hate. H-E-L-L-O–Hello.

To read more, and to hear the song, go here.

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