This week in history: Nat King Cole interrupted, beaten during Alabama concert
Cole, who died this week on Feb. 15, was performing in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 10, 1956, when KKK members stormed the stage and attacked him.
As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
For balladeer Nat King Cole, playing in Alabama might have felt like a homecoming. The singer, who died this week on Feb. 15, was a Montgomery native, but his family moved to Chicago when he was 4 years old.
But playing segregated venues like the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium in 1956 came with serious risks. While Cole performed for a white audience at the theater on April 10, four members of the Ku Klux Klan stormed the stage and attacked the singer.
Want more “This Week In History” content delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our Afternoon Edition newsletter for a rundown of the day’s biggest stories every weekday and a deep-dive into Chicago history every Saturday.
At Midway Airport the next day, a Chicago Daily News reporter met Cole at the gate and asked him how he felt.
“I don’t think I was hurt,” the “Unforgettable” singer explained in an interview. “I was just in shock.” He said that he planned to see a doctor in the city before going back on tour in other Southern cities.
“I don’t think it was aimed at me personally,” he added. “I believe it was just a small group of men trying to agitate something.”
Rumors of a demonstration during the show swirled in the weeks leading up to the concert, the Daily News reporter said. Local police appeared to take the rumors seriously as several officers were stations in the wings and audience. When the four men stormed the stage, police apprehended them quickly along with several others a short time later.
The Daily News did not provide details of the attack on Cole, but according to AL.com, he was partway through “Little Girl” when the four club-wielding men attacked. One of them, Kenneth Adams, grabbed Cole, knocking a microphone in his face, and wrestled him to the ground. After police hauled the men away, Cole returned to the stage to a standing ovation, but he told the crowd he could not continue, as he needed to see a doctor, but he did perform later for a Black audience.
“Detectives E.K. Alley and T.E. Lindsey said the men told the officers they intended to seize the microphone and make a speech for segregation,” the Daily News’ report said.
Perhaps even more disturbing, police found a car parked outside the auditorium with two .22 rifles, a homemade blackjack and a pair of brass knuckles inside, the paper reported. Six men in total were charged with assault with intent to murder.
Though he had every right to feel upset and hurt, Cole showed grace and forgiveness to the people of his home state.
“I didn’t think I had an enemy in Alabama,” he told the Daily News reporter. “I do want to say I’m not mad at a soul. The people here in Birmingham were just great. Many of them headed backstage to tell me they were sorry it happened.”