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Trumpeting a challenge: New book on 1957 Little Rock showdown recounts key role played in Grand Forks by jazz great Louis Armstrong

Photo provided by Wikimedia Commons Louis Armstrong, famed jazz trumpeter, seen here playing his instrument in this undated photo, first spoke out about desegregation in a 1957 Grand Forks Herald article.­

GRAND FORKS -- Larry Lubenow was a 21-year-old University of North Dakota journalism student in September 1957, a jazz aficionado who landed a plum "stringer" assignment from the Grand Forks Herald: interview Louis Armstrong, who was playing a one-night gig at Grand Forks Central High School.

What Armstrong said that night would reverberate far beyond Grand Forks.

The story is told in a just-published book, "Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock," by David Margolick. One reviewer calls it "a beautiful and moving meditation on race, struggle, and the forgiving and unforgiving passage of time."

That September, as Armstrong brought his touring All Stars jazz band to Grand Forks, a high-stakes drama was playing out at another Central High a few hundred miles to the south, in Little Rock, Ark.

Elizabeth Eckford and eight other black students were trying to enroll at the all-white public high school, and many white residents were bitterly resisting the effort. In one of the most iconic photographs from the civil rights era, a white girl -- Hazel Bryan -- was shown trailing Elizabeth, her face contorted in rage and hate as she shouted racial slurs.

Both girls were 15.

The famous photograph "is really more of Hazel Bryan" than of Elizabeth Eckford, Margolick writes. "It is on Hazel that the eyes land, and linger. Despite the tricky lighting, her face is perfectly exposed: the early morning September sun shines on her like a spotlight. It hits her from the side, painting her face in a dark chiaroscuro that makes it look more demonic still. She's caught mid-vowel, with her mouth gapingly, ferociously open."

Forty years later, the two women came together again, this time in the spirit of reconciliation. In that 40th anniversary period, they made many appearances together. President Bill Clinton, speaking at Central High School in Little Rock, praised them as examples of how the country and the American people could move beyond racial conflict.

Talk with Satchmo

Lubenow (whose brother Wayne would become a longtime popular columnist at The Forum newspaper of Fargo-Moorhead) was moonlighting at the Herald while going to school, earning $1.75 an hour for the occasional feature story.

An editor suggested he go to the Dakota Hotel, where Armstrong was staying, and see if the famous entertainer would grant him an interview.

"No politics," the editor told Lubenow.

That probably seemed an unlikely topic, Margolick writes in his book and in an excerpt published in the Sept. 28 issue of Arkansas Times magazine.

"With his famously sunny, unthreatening disposition, Armstrong rarely ventured into such things anyway. 'I don't get involved in politics,' he once said. 'I just blow my horn,'" Margolick stated.

But Lubenow had been following news of the dramatic events in Little Rock, and he was aware of a Grand Forks connection: the federal judge who had ordered implementation of a desegregation plan was Ronald Davies, from Grand Forks.

And Lubenow had seen the photograph, sent around the world, of Hazel and other whites taunting young Elizabeth.

So had Armstrong, and he was ready to speak out.

"When I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting on a little colored girl, I think I have a right to get sore," he said.

According to Lubenow's account, relayed many years later through Margolick, Armstrong had harsh words for Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who was resisting desegregation, and for President Dwight Eisenhower, who Armstrong said was too timid about pursuing it.

Startled by the vehemence of Armstrong's denunciations, Lubenow skipped the jazz concert and returned to the newspaper office, where he started writing: "The Ambassador of Jazz trumpeted a new tune today."

The Herald ran the story. The Associated Press balked, Margolick writes, and asked for proof that the rookie reporter hadn't just made it all up -- since it seemed so out of character for the ever-smiling "Satchmo."

Lubenow went back to the Dakota Hotel, "and, as Armstrong was shaving, the Herald photographer took their picture together." The caption identified Armstrong as the artist "who got all lathered up about segregation here Wednesday."

The reporter handed Armstrong a copy of his story. Armstrong wrote "solid" on the copy and signed it.

"The story flashed around the country," Margolick writes. "Douglas Edwards and John Cameron Swayze reported it that night on the network news."

A mixed reaction

The next night, Armstrong and his All Stars played a concert in Montevideo, Minn., and he was asked about the Grand Forks interview.

"I said what somebody should have said a long time ago," he responded.

He closed his show by playing and singing "The Star Spangled Banner," but there was a quick and hostile reaction to his words from white America. Prominent people called for a boycott of his music. Advertisers threatened to pull ads from TV shows where he was scheduled to appear, and a Mississippi radio station made a spectacle of tossing out all his records.

"But Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Marian Anderson and Sugar Ray Robinson quickly lined up behind him," Margolick reports.

The nation's black press also was delighted.

Partly because Armstrong's anger was so unexpected, it probably "had more devastating effect on President Eisenhower's administration and national leaders than many mouthings of recognized Negro leaders," the St. Louis Argus opined.

On Sept. 24, 1957, a week after Armstrong's outcry in Grand Forks, Eisenhower federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard, taking control of those troops from Faubus, and he sent the Army's 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to ensure that Elizabeth Eckford and eight other black students were allowed to enter Central High School.

Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.