From The Billboard Archive: 1956 Editorial Laments 'Apathetic' Response to Racially Motivated Attack on Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole playing the piano in the recording studio in the 1950s.

Nat King Cole playing the piano in the recording studio in the 1950s.

By 1956, crooner Nat King Cole was a bona fide hitmaker: songs like "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "The Christmas Song," and his signature ballad, "Unforgettable," had earned him appearances in Hollywood blockbusters, national radio spots, and his own TV show -- almost unprecedented mainstream exposure for African Americans at the time.

Because of his broad appeal, Cole could tour nationally -- a blessing and a curse during the Jim Crow era. His immense popularity often meant performing in segregated venues, including his native Alabama's Birmingham Municipal Auditorium, where he performed two sets on April 10, 1956 backed by the (all-white) Ted Heath Orchestra: an early show for white fans, and a late show for black ones.

There was an unusually strong police presence at the performance, and unfortunately the concerns that prompted it wound up being warranted: During the first show, Cole was in the middle of performing the set's third song, "Little Girl," when four men -- all members of white supremacist organization the North Alabama Citizen's Council -- shouted "Let's go get that coon!" and rushed the stage. Though police reacted instantly, Cole was still injured in the attack, and had to stop the show. "I just came here to entertain you," he told the audience. "I thought that was what you wanted. I was born here." Cole told reporters after the 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?"

Billboard, very much the industry publication it remains today, offered an uncharacteristically political response in its April 21, 1956 issue: an editorial titled "Hoodlums vs. Decency," protesting the nation's apathetic response to racially motivated violence. Given that, 60 years later, so many of the piece's sentiments are still relevant -- particularly as discussion around the presidential election reaches its zenith -- it seemed more than appropriate to share once again.


The full text:

The regrettable attack on Nat (King) Cole in Birmingham by a band of hoodlums redounds to the everlasting discredit of those who foster race prejudice. By an ironic twist, the incident will ultimately accomplish some good -- for it has focused national publicity on the fact that a gentleman of outstanding character and talent may not travel with freedom and safety in prejudice-ridden areas of the country.

The magnitude and brazenness of the incident shocks decent people throughout the land -- in the North and the South. It is to be hoped that the incident will not merely be deplored, but will trigger some logical thinking among governmental and community groups who have been apathetic for too long a period. 

In the show business, just as in any business in this good land of ours, we must hew to fundamentals. It is shameful that they must be repeated, but it would be even more shameful if they were not. Character, accomplishment, decency, and honor are the traditional measures of a man.