- Historic Sites
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
Louis Armstrong created a dilemma for me in the middle of Africa in 1960. I was the director of the United States Information Service in the three-state Federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland.
One morning I received an unexpected message marked “urgent” from the State Department’s Cultural Exchange Program in Washington: “Louis Armstrong and All Stars currently in West Africa. Department planning to extend Armstrong tour to additional countries in Africa. Advise soonest if you wish performances.”
Who wouldn’t want Armstrong? He was world-acclaimed, and I knew that both whites and blacks in the Rhodesias and Nyasaland listened to his jazz on the Voice of America.
The telegram went to American embassies in seven other African countries, where my colleagues could respond like gangbusters to its offer. They didn’t have to cope with our situation—at that time the Rhodesias and Nyasaland composed one of the most racially segregated areas on earth.
How could the man known as “America’s Goodwill Ambassador” perform in such an environment? Should Armstrong give concerts before segregated audiences, which was the entrenched local custom? Were segregated concerts better than no concerts at all? Or should I simply tell Washington to forget it and skip this place?
Or was there another way? My colleagues and I got together to talk over the State Department’s offer. There were four of us on the senior staff, and we unanimously decided that a visit by Armstrong would be an opportunity to dramatically demonstrate where America stood on racial discrimination. “Our goal has got to be nonsegregated concerts if Armstrong is going to perform,” summarized our political officer.
The next step was to win support for this position from our new boss, Consul General John K. Emmerson. He’d been on the job for only two weeks when the State Department telegram came in. He was fifty-two, well educated, and he asked sensible questions: “Will many whites come if seating is nonsegregated?” and “Are there apt to be any security problems?” We weren’t sure that large numbers of whites would attend, we answered, but we thought so. Even if they didn’t, I added, our promotion of the concerts on a nonsegregated basis would give the United States greater credibility with the black majority. As for security problems, we told him we weren’t sure about this either, but precautions could be taken. Emmerson nodded. So far, so good.
Then he came to the tougher questions. “Should the United States be getting out front like this on the race issue here? Is this the right time for us to take such an initiative so publicly? Look,” he went on, “is confrontation with the white leadership of the government any way for me to begin my assignment here? You gentlemen are asking me to go in and insist on changes by heads of government I’ve never even met yet.”
Our political officer broke the silence that followed. “Well,” he said, “who the hell is going to answer the boss’s questions first?” He looked at me. “The Cultural Exchange Program is your baby.”
I said, “The staff has given this Armstrong matter serious attention, and we all agree that this is a unique and important opportunity. We don’t know how the local government will react, but we’re convinced it’s worth a try.”
The discussion lasted an hour. In the end our consul general said, “O.K., let’s bring Armstrong here. Helluva way for this new boy on the block to start things with the local authorities, but let’s give it a go.”
Elated, we bolted for the door to get started. “Hold it!” Emmerson motioned, right-hand palm in the air. “There’s something you’ve overlooked—Washington. I’m not going to lay down a challenge to the leadership here without Washington knowing it and approving it beforehand.”
A cable went back to Washington in an hour, and we got a reply three hours after that: “Concur in full.” Our memo to the local government was hand-delivered the next morning. How they would respond was anybody’s guess. We were mildly optimistic because at that time the government was slowly edging toward desegregation. The chief justice of the country, Sir Robert Tredgold, had asked us a few months earlier for American law books with cases showing how we desegregated public places in the United States, “including swimming baths.” A few commercial hotels in the country had begun to open their doors to nonwhites, but big concerts with possibly thousands of people on a nonsegregated seating basis was a new issue.
The answer arrived in five days. It came in a phone call to me from the head of the Federal Information Department, Colin Black, a jovial professional: “The government has instructed me to say they approve. They have no problem with open-to-all concerts and no-nsegregated seating. We’ll send over confirmation in writing. It will be lovely to meet the fellow,” Black concluded.
Clearly the government was intending to keep the matter at a low level, information officer to information officer, so as to convey the impression that its decision on the American position was not a serious political problem, no big deal, and that it was decided very quickly. But insiders told us later that there was sharp debate within the highest levels of the government.