Nat King Cole, the jazz legend, was undoubtedly one of the most talented American artists of his period. He was a very talented actor who appeared on Broadway shows and was remembered for his calming voice and dexterity on the keyboard. In 1956, his program, The Nat King Cole Show, made history by being the first variety show presented by an African-American actor.
However, the jazz singer received the shock of his life when he was assaulted on stage by the KKK in the same year. It was April 10th, 1956, when a group of white men attacked and knocked down the singer while playing in front of an all-white crowd of 4,000 at Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, everything happened so fast. Some crowd members believed the assailants had stormed the stage to target a drunk man in the front row who had been jeering at Cole and shouting, “Negro, go home.”
Cole was one of the biggest rock stars when he arrived in Birmingham in 1956 to sing. However, he was forced to schedule different shows for White and Black audiences due to the city’s racial segregation rules. The Montgomery native played in front of a segregated audience in Mobile, Alabama, the night before the Birmingham attack and was booed by those in the audience.
On the night of the incident, the singer and pianist were halfway through his third song of the evening, the romantic ballad “Little Girl,” with his all-White backing band at Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium when the hell broke loose. A 19-year-old from Vermont named John Birchard, who witnessed the account, later narrated what she had seen happen.
“The evening got off to a good start. Before it was time for Cole to appear, the artists went through their songs and jokes. The Trio’s curtain went up, with Nat seated at the piano, half-turned toward the crowd, and the floor mic between his knees. He was received warmly by the crowd, and he began to sing.”
Suddenly, there was a noise from the back of the Auditorium, followed by four men, two in each aisle, sprinting toward the stage. They rushed the stage, with one of them tackling Nat King Cole and knocking him off the piano bench and onto the floor.
“It was instantaneous chaos. The crowd erupted into screams. Before you could blink, a hundred cops appeared onstage, wrestling with the four white men and dragging them away,” Birchard said.
Police apprehended cole’s assailants at the Birmingham concert. Four men had been charged with causing a riot, and two others were detained for questioning. Outside the stadium, police discovered a vehicle with rifles, a blackjack, and brass knuckles.
Nat King Cole returned to the stage to a standing ovation after the assault, but he told the crowd he couldn’t finish the show because his back hurt. He told the White crowd, “I just came here to entertain you. That’s just what I assumed you wanted. Alabama is where I was born. Those people made my back hurt. I’m sorry, but I’m not able to proceed because I need to see a doctor.”
Cole was treated by a physician and went on to appear later that night in front of a Black crowd. According to reports, Asa Carter, a speechwriter, and novelist orchestrated the assault on Cole. Each of the alleged Klan members, Jesse Mabry, E.L. Vinson, Mike Fox, and Orliss Clevenge, received a maximum sentence of 180 days in prison plus fines during the sentencing trial 1956 assault.
Cole’s assault reflects the fact of being a Black man in America, where racial inequality demonstrations have exploded in recent years.
“I’ve never participated in a protest. I’ve also never joined a segregation-fighting group. Why are they attacking me? All I want to do now is forget about it,” said Cole.