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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 15 2012

Louis Armstrong fan proposes civil rights marker in Grand Forks

GRAND FORKS – Louis Armstrong’s surprising outburst on race relations in America while in Grand Forks for a 1957 concert should be commemorated here, a fan of the jazz great told the Historic Preservation Commission.

Charles Jensvold, 65, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., told commissioners Tuesday night that Armstrong’s remarks on what was happening then in Little Rock, Ark., where state and local authorities were resisting efforts to integrate the high school, “really was a major event in the civil rights movement,” but the incident is not widely known.

What Armstrong said in an interview with a Grand Forks Herald reporter has been recounted recently in a number of publications, including a just-published book, “Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock,” by David Margolick. The book, with its account of Armstrong’s 1957 interview, was the subject of a Herald story in November 2011.

“People were enthusiastic about the idea,” said Gordon Iseminger, a UND professor of history and a member of the commission. “He got a warm reception.”

Larry Lubenow was a 21-year-old UND journalism student moonlighting at the Herald when he was assigned to get an interview with Armstrong, in town for a concert at Central High School.

Armstrong was staying at the Dakotah Hotel. The young reporter was advised to stay away from politics, but that seemed an unlikely subject. “I don’t get involved in politics,” Armstrong once said. “I just blow my horn.”

But Armstrong had been following news of the dramatic events in Little Rock, where a federal judge had ordered implementation of a desegregation plan. (Another local connection: The man brought in to preside over the case was U.S. District Judge Ronald Davies, from Grand Forks.)

“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,” Armstrong said.

He said he was thinking about pulling out of a planned goodwill tour of the Soviet Union organized by the U.S. State Department. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”

A week after Armstrong’s outcry in Grand Forks, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, taking control of those troops from Gov. Faubus, and sent the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to ensure integration.

A memorial of some sort in downtown Grand Forks, perhaps in the former hotel building where the interview took place, “would be a way to say thank you to Louis Armstrong,” Jensvold said.

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald