An uncredited piece in the January 11, 2018 edition of AL.com titled “The Night Nat Cole was Beaten on a Birmingham Stage” recounts the April 10, 1956 evening in Birmingham, Alabama, in which Nat Cole was attacked on stage by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. It is not only an example of our not-so-distant racist past, but also concerns the complexity concerning Cole’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the civil rights movement. Consider this brief excerpt from the article:
“I can’t understand it,” Cole said of the attack. “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.”
Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of NAACP sent Cole a telegram after the attack, “You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility,newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite you to join us in a crusade against racism.”
His comments prompted NAACP legal counsel Thurgood Marshall to consider him an “Uncle Tom.”
NAACP members rejected Cole’s insistence on playing segregated shows and considered him a traitor. After years of berating, Cole would eventually join the Civil Rights Movement and was an active participant of the legendary 1963 March On Washington.
However, wrote Marianne Ruth, Cole believed he was an “entertainer, not a politician.”
When he died of lung cancer at age 45, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Although he gave freely of himself in benefit performances for civil rights groups, there were still some who complained he wasn’t militant enough.”
“A celebrity can overplay his hand talking too much,” he said, “when there ought to be more doing and less talking.”
You can read the entire piece by clicking here.