1956 Nat King Cole assault
Cole and his trio were touring along with fellow smooth-jazz artists June Christy and the Four Freshmen, accompanied by the London-based Ted Heath Orchestra. Most of the thirty cities on the 31-day tour were in the south, with the final performance scheduled for New York's Carnegie Hall in May.
Due to Birmingham's segregation laws, Cole was set to perform twice that evening; an early set for a white audience and a later show in front of a black audience. When he performed, Heath's all-white orchestra was initially hidden behind the curtain, so that audiences would not see them occupying the same stage as Cole's trio.
At the start of the early set, Mayor Jimmy Morgan took the stage to welcome the popular singer, who was greeted with joyful cheers from the youthful white audience of more than 4,000. At least one man in the crowd, who appeared to be drunk, took to catcalling "Negro, go home!" from near the front row. The curtain between the performers proved unmanageable, and was soon raised to more cheers from the audience.
Cole was in the midst of performing his third song ("Little Girl") when three members of Asa Carter's Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, rushed the stage carrying billy clubs, tackling the singer from his piano bench. A number of plainclothes detectives, tipped off to expect potential trouble, responded quickly to pull the attackers away. However uniformed officers working security didn't recognize the detectives as such and busied themselves attempting to arrest both groups.
As order was restored Heath's orchestra, now hidden again behind the stage curtain, broke out into "God Save the Queen".
Six men in all were taken into custody, and four of them were charged with inciting a riot. The primary assailants were identified as Kenneth Adams, E. L. Vinson & Willis Vinson, with Jesse Mabry, Mile Fox and Orliss Clevenger present as accomplices. Their car was found outside, and rifles, a blackjack, and brass knuckles were recovered from it.
Cole returned to the stage to thank the audience for their support, but did not complete the performance. He told the crowd, "I just came here to entertain you. 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."
After passing a check-up, he returned to the auditorium and performed for the later black audience. Heath and many of his musicians were appalled by the attack and he threatened to cancel the remainder of the tour, but Cole convinced him to continue. Cole's silence on segregation and his willingness to comply with racist customs while performing in the South prompted criticism from the NAACP's Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall, who entreated him to join with them in pressing for change.
Adams, Vinson and Vinson were convicted of assault and battery and each sentenced to serve 180 days in jail.
- Ward, Bryan (April 1, 2010) "Civil Rights and Rock and Roll: Revisiting the Nat King Cole Attack of 1956." OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 21-24
- Gray, Jeremy (January 11, 2018) "The night Nat King Cole was beaten on a Birmingham stage" The Birmingham News