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Louis Armstrong cancels trip to Russia

Louis Armstrong, the famous African-American jazz musician, angrily announces that he will not participate in a U.S. government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union. Armstrong was furious over developments in Little Rock, Arkansas, where mobs of white citizens and armed National Guardsmen had recently blocked the entrance of nine African-American students into the all-white Central High School.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. government faced a serious problem in its propaganda war against the Soviet Union. American society had what some U.S. officials referred to as an “Achilles heel”–racial discrimination. To counteract worldwide criticism of America’s race problem, the U.S. government often sponsored world tours by African-American writers, artists, musicians, and sports figures. Former boxer Joe Louis, the Harlem Globetrotters, singer Marian Anderson, and many others were sent around the world as “goodwill ambassadors.” The famous jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong was much in demand, both by the American government and by audiences overseas. In 1957, the United States arranged for Armstrong to tour the Soviet Union. Just before he was supposed to depart, however, events in Little Rock exploded.

A federal judge had ordered the integration of the all-white Central High School in Little Rock. Nine African-American students tried to attend the school but were turned away by an angry mob of whites and by armed National Guardsmen called out by Governor Orval Faubus. Armstrong was furious at what he believed to be inaction on the part of the federal government to correct the situation. He declared, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” Armstrong claimed that President Eisenhower had “no guts” in dealing with Faubus, whom he called an “ignorant plow boy.” “It’s getting so bad,” he concluded, “a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

Armstrong’s statements were a severe setback for U.S. officials and the American propaganda machine. Publicly, the U.S. government attempted to downplay Armstrong’s statements by noting that they were said in the heat of emotion generated by Little Rock. Privately, however, U.S. officials were furious at the entertainer. The tension between vocal critics of the government and U.S. propaganda efforts only heightened as the civil rights movement became more active in the early 1960s and more African-Americans–such as Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois–who went overseas used their trips to condemn American racism rather than defend American democracy.

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