On April 10, 1956, African American jazz singer and musician, Nat King Cole was attacked in Birmingham, Alabama as he performed at a Whites-only concert at the Municipal Auditorium. He was in the middle of performing his third song, “Little Girl” when someone yelled “Let’s go get that coon” and four men rushed down the center aisle. One turned back but the other three, Willis Vinson, E.R. Vinson, and Kenneth Adams got to Cole and attacked him. Thankfully there were police officers on the scene who quickly moved to protect the Jazz singer. The attack happened during the first of two scheduled performances. The second was for an all-Black audience.
Cole later spoke on the incident saying, “This thing happened so fast. The spot was in my eyes. I didn’t see anything. This fellow lunged up, below the stage, and hit the microphone and it hit me under the chin. I fell over the piano stool, on my back.” The audience of about 4,000 called for Cole to return to the stage where they welcomed him with a 10-minute ovation. Cole later stated that “the audience was wonderful. They were trying to tell me in their own way that they do not condone such actions.” Still very shaken up, Cole addressed the audience. “I just came here to entertain you. That was what I thought you wanted. I was born in Alabama. These folks hurt my back. I cannot continue, because I have to go to a doctor.”
The Birmingham police department investigated the attack thoroughly (unlike most cases of violence committed by Whites toward Blacks). They discovered a kidnapping plan that was made four days before. There was originally one hundred men involved but they failed to show. Six men were arrested in connection to the attack. Jesse Mabry, Mike Fox, and Orliss Clevenger were taken in including the Vinson brothers and Adams. All but one were from Anniston, Alabama. Clevenger and Fox had been arrested outside the Auditorium in waiting in Clevenger’s car. Inside the car were brass knuckles, a blackjack and two .22 caliber rifles. The two claimed the guns were for shooting a turkey. Initially all men were charged with assault with intent to murder. Just Kenneth Adams and Willis Vinson were indicted but never convicted. The other four were charged with lesser offences and served a maximum six months each plus fines. Clevenger was fined $28 for possession of a concealed weapon.
The state of Alabama had been undergoing a massive resistance to rock and roll music at the time. Many people looked to the North Alabama White Citizens Council believing they were the source of the attack. Asa Carter, executive secretary of The North Alabama White Citizens Council and secret member of the Klan, was quick to condemn the use of violence but his ties to the attack said enough. Kenneth Adams was on the board of directors of the affiliated Anniston Citizens’ Council. Jesse Mabry was editor of the Southerner, Asa Carter’s newspaper.
It was Carter who helped to start the White public turmoil of rock and roll music. Music that derived from Black artists. Music that brought the youths together- Black and White. Bringing Black males and White females together. Ironically enough, Nat King Cole wasn’t even a rock and roll musician. Carter used phrases like “jungle music,” “be-bop blues” and “congo rhythms” as well as rock and roll when describing the music that was “infecting” the South; all those genres having Black roots. A picture of Cole with White jazz singer June Christy was featured in Carter’s the Southerner. In the article accompanying the photograph it was asked, “How close are the Cole’s and the innumerable Negro entertainers brining the White girl to the Negro male? How many Negroes have been encouraged to make advances to White girls and women, by the constant strumming of such propaganda into their minds?” Carter even accused the NAACP of aiming to corrupt White teenagers. Dave Bartholomew, Black band leader, responded saying, “The record companies are owned 100 percent by White people. They are the ones who are responsible for the success of r’n’b by promoting it with their top names to create bigger and better records.”