December 2007 By Nat Hentoff
Satchmo’s Rap Sheet
The FBI is proposing a new computer-profiling system, STAR (the System to Assess Risk), that, as National Public Radio reported on July 17, will be sifting through some six billion pieces of data by 2012, “about 20 records for every man, woman and child in America.” Many of those “persons of interest” suspected of terrorism links will be databased for additional scrutiny by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. They won’t know they have FBI files.
Back in J. Edgar Hoover’s reign, even without databasing, the FBI amassed files on great numbers of Americans with purported ties to Communism and other subversive activities. Later, through the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get my FBI reports—including an extensive file of articles I’d written, petitions I’d signed and people I’d known—with no mention anywhere that, as I’ve written, I’d been a fierce anti-Communist since reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (about Stalinism from the inside) when I was 15.
Hoover had a special interest in black Americans, so I was not surprised to find recently—thanks to Louis Armstrong archivist Michael Cogswell and Louis’ longtime friend and associate, Phoebe Jacobs of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation—an FBI file stamped “This Summary Had Been Prepared for Use at the Seat of Government and is Not Suitable for Dissemination.” This secret Armstrong summary was dated Aug. 8, 1962.
Then, as now, the FBI specialized in imaginary conspiracies based on its suspects’ associations. In Louis’ file: “A letter from Embassy Paris, dated 5/8/56 … revealed that a ‘Congress of Scholars of the Negro World,’ sponsored by the leftist ‘Presence Africaine’ … was scheduled to take place in Paris, September 19-22, 1956 … Louis Armstrong [was among] the American delegates who were invited.”
Whether or not Louis ever came, the suspected association was duly noted. After all, as the FBI added the next year, this Armstrong person was extremely critical of President Eisenhower: “A newspaper clipping from the 9/19/57 issue of the ‘Southeast Missourian’ … reported that Armstrong, while in Grand Forks for a concert, declared that he was dropping plans for a government-backed trip to Russia [as a cultural ambassador] ‘because of the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell [sic].’”
This musician-agitator also, said the file, “called Eisenhower ‘two-faced’ and had ‘no guts’ and was letting [Arkansas] Governor Orville Faubus who forbade the entrance of black students in Little Rock schools [sic].”
As an indication that FBI sources of information on subversives included patriotic citizens, directly under the entry of Armstrong’s denunciation of the war-hero president, was, “An anonymous letter, dated 9/21/57, with the envelope postmarked Boston, Mass., revealed that the writer was concerned about ‘various well known Negroes,’ who, according to the writer, were associated with CP members.
“The writer stated: ‘Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong is a communist, why does the State Dept. give him a passport?’”
(Maybe the passport had been issued by one of those communists whom Joe McCarthy told us had infested the State Department.)
When the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Governor Faubus to let those Negro children into the Little Rock Schools and Eisenhower reluctantly agreed (saying, “there were extreme myths on both sides”), Louis’ FBI files ran clips from the New York Herald Tribune and the Washington Post reporting that Louis might change his mind about a government-sponsored tour of Russia.
The FBI’s unblinking eye, however, stayed on Louis: “A letter from Embassy. Lome, Togoland, Africa to the State Department dated 12/9/60 [focused on the] distribution in Togo of Communist Propaganda … which presented a vicious attack on US racial policy [and] ‘made its appearance at approximately the dates on which Louis Armstrong performed in Lome.’” (The FBI must have surmised that wasn’t a coincidence.)
At least Louis was in Africa on that date. My own FBI file reported that I had been at a meeting of “radicals” in North Africa around the same time. I have never been to Africa, North or South.
Hardly any possible unlawful activity of Louis was ignored by the FBI. An 11/30/50 entry “indicated that Louis Armstrong and his orchestra were playing at the Flamingo Hotel and Armstrong was dissatisfied with the situation.” A person whose name was redacted said “he would take care of Armstrong by calling him on the telephone and by sending him a bottle of Scotch or a couple of reefers.” Possession of reefers could get you busted.
Almost entirely blacked out was a 7/13/48 report that [name redacted]’s address book contained the name of Louis Armstrong, 9200 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Calif.” If Congress funds the FBI’s new STAR profiling operation, capable of harvesting billions of names, some Americans may decide to look carefully in their address books, whether in print or electronic form.
In my FBI file, a particularly damning report involving jazz was that I had given a course on jazz in the 1940s in Boston at the Samuel Adams School, which was on the list of Communist-front institutions. Actually, it was, and I knew about some pinkos on the faculty, but no other school had ever asked me to teach a course on jazz, and I couldn’t resist.
Of course, I often mentioned Louis Armstrong during my lectures, and that might have heightened the FBI’s subsequent sustained interest in me. I prize any association with Louis, even thanks to the FBI files.
Originally published in December 2007