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.
We scheduled five concerts in a week in the Federation, three of them in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and published ads in the local press and put up posters announcing that Louis Armstrong was coming, that his concerts were “sponsored by the United States of America” and would be “Open-to-All.” My black friends were ecstatic and incredulous; my white friends praised our initiative but questioned whether it would be successful.
I met Armstrong and his All-Stars on their early-evening arrival at Salisbury airport. He got off the plane holding his trumpet case and I offered to carry it. “Nah, man, thanks, this horn’s my bread and butter. It never leaves me,” he said. In the terminal he was immediately recognized. People clapped and requested his autograph.
In the car I asked him how the concerts had been going in West Africa. “Man, the cats were jumpin’ everywhere,” he smiled. “They had to stop the show in Ghana for a little while because the people were rushing the bandstand and might have turned us over.” He was in high spirits, so I thought this would be a good time to introduce the subject of his concerts in this region of Africa. I told him we had pressed the local government and won approval for nonsegregated performances. Armstrong grew somber. “It’s a good thing you won or I wouldn’t be here!” The consul general’s driver chuckled.
The opening-night concert was held in Salisbury, the capital city, in an open-air soccer stadium that seated twenty-five thousand people. The standard ropes separating blacks and whites were gone; blacks were everywhere, not just at the far ends of the stadium.
For the first time ever at an event of this magnitude in Southern Rhodesia, whites and blacks were sitting side by side completely filling the stadium: white government officials and business executives, black clerks, white farmers and black laborers who had come in trucks and buses from nearby rural areas, white and black students, white and black church leaders, white parliamentarians and black policemen, white army officers and black troops—all of them cheek by jowl in the stands. When Armstrong appeared, everyone rose and cheered together.
Waving his gleaming brass trumpet and stopping to shake outstretched hands, he came striding down the middle of the field from one end to the other, where the stage was set up, a spotlight on him for the whole hundred yards. He beamed with pleasure all the way, nodding his head at the sight around him.
It was a warm summer night with a full moon in a cloudless sky. The atmosphere was one of warmth, too, as whites and blacks smiled at each other throughout the concert.
When Armstrong belted out “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the audience knew the words and sang along with him.
“Yeah, you got it!” he shouted to the crowd. “Sing it, baby!,” gesturing in a “come here” motion.
At the end of the ninety-minute concert, the audience simply would not leave. Finally, after a series of encores, Armstrong raised his arms over his head, like someone trying to stop traffic, and asked for quiet. “I gotta tell y’all something.” He looked over the crowd, leaned closer into the microphone and spoke huskily but softly: “It’s sure nice to see this .” The audience knew what he meant and erupted in thunderous applause. With six words, Louis Armstrong had captured the mood of a historic, unprecedented night.
I watched it all with great relief. My stomach had been killing me for three weeks because I was worried, not really sure whether nonsegregated seating was going to work. More than ten thousand whites showed up, according to stadium officials.
After two filled stadium concerts in Salisbury, Armstrong gave his next performance in Bulawayo, the secondlargest city in Southern Rhodesia. He seemed to have a knack for quick, often evocative one-liners. We were walking out of a hotel one morning when three local white journalists came up to him. One of them asked a typical question put to visiting celebrities: “Well, Mr. Armstrong, how do you like Rhodesia?” Without missing a beat, Armstrong said: “Y’all sure know how to keep little black children in bare feet!”
Armstrong’s concerts sparked new impetus toward desegregation. Several months later the dismantling of segregation laws and regulations increased. One of the first barriers to fall in Southern Rhodesia was segregated seating in entertainment, including movie houses. Next came the lifting of color bars in athletic teams, sports competitions, and in spectator seating at sports events.
After Armstrong completed his tour of Africa and was back home in New York, we exchanged letters. On learning of the ground-breaking results of his visit to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, he asked me what I missed most from the United States. I answered jokingly, “A pastrami sandwich on rye from the Stage Deli in New York.” Two weeks later a big refrigerated package arrived at my office in Southern Rhodesia. It was a twenty-pound pastrami from the Stage. We enjoyed it for weeks.