Jazz legend Nat King Cole was hands down one of the most talented American performers of his time. Remembered for his soothing voice and dexterity on the keyboard, Cole was, besides music, a very talented actor and performed on Broadway shows. He made history in 1956 when his show, The Nat King Cole Show, became the first variety TV series to be hosted by an African-American performer.
But it was that same year that the jazz singer got the shock of his life when he was attacked on stage by the KKK. On April 10, 1956, the singer was performing before an all-white audience of 4,000 at the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham when he was attacked and knocked down by a group of white men.
The attack happened so quickly that some members of the audience thought the attackers had rushed the stage to attack a drunk man near the front row who had been jeering at Cole, “Negro, go home,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Cole was one of the biggest musical stars when he got ready to perform in Birmingham in 1956. However, because of the city’s racial segregation laws, he was required to schedule separate shows for White and Black audiences. The night before the Birmingham attack, the Montgomery native performed before a segregated audience in Mobile, Alabama, and was jeered at by some members of the crowd.
On the night of April 10 at Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium, the singer and pianist was midway through his third song of the evening, the romantic ballad “Little Girl”, with his all-White backing band when the unfortunate incident occurred. John Birchard, a 19-year-old from Vermont, who was among those in the audience, later narrated what happened.
“The evening started enjoyably enough. The artists went through their tunes and jokes until it was time for Cole to appear. The curtain went up on the Trio, with Nat seated at the piano, turned half-way toward the audience, floor mic between his knees. The audience greeted him warmly and he began to sing. Suddenly, there was noise from the rear of the hall, quickly followed by four men, two in each aisle of the Auditorium, racing toward the stage. They leaped onto the stage, one of them tackling Cole, knocking him off the piano bench onto the floor.”
“There was instant chaos. the audience on its feet, screaming. Before you could blink, there were what seemed like a hundred cops onstage, grappling with the four white men, dragging them away,” Birchard said.
Police who were at the Birmingham concert arrested Cole’s attackers. Four men were charged with inciting a riot while two others were held for questioning. The police later found a car containing rifles, a blackjack, and brass knuckles outside the arena.
After the attack, Cole returned to the stage to a standing ovation but he told the audience he could not continue with the show as his back hurt. “I just came here to entertain you,” he told the White crowd. “That was what I thought you wanted. I was born in Alabama. Those folks hurt my back. I cannot continue, because I need to see a doctor.”
Cole was examined by a physician and he went on to perform at the show scheduled for a Black audience later that night.
Reports said the group that attacked Cole was organized by Asa Carter, a speechwriter and a novelist. During the sentencing trial for the 1956 attack, each of the suspected Klan members — Jesse Mabry, E.L. Vinson, Mike Fox, and Orliss Clevenger — received a maximum sentence of 180 days plus fines.
Cole’s attack speaks to the reality of being a Black man in America, where protests against racial injustice in recent times have erupted. Cole, while alive, would say of his attack: “I can’t understand it.”
“I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me? I’d just like to forget about the whole thing.”
Cole, who believed he was an entertainer, not a politician, was seen by the NAACP as a traitor as he insisted on playing segregated shows. After some years, however, Cole would finally join the Civil Rights Movement and be an active participant of the massive protest march — the 1963 March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom.