INTERRUPTED MELODY: THE 1956 ATTACK ON NAT “KING” COLE
Sprayberry, Gary S
In the back of the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium, a small group of men huddled in the darkness, awaiting a signal. In a matter of moments Nat “King” Cole’s muchanticipated performance would come to an abrupt and violent halt.
SECURITY FOR THE NAT “KING” COLE concert was unusually tight on April 10,1956. Warned in advance of possible violence erupting during the show, Birmingham police officers presented a highly conspicuous front in and around the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium. Backstage, where Cole and the other performers readied themselves for the show, the mood was grim. “I told Nat something was going to happen,” said Carl Carruthers, Cole’s road manager. “I tried to get him to cancel.” But the singer could not be dissuaded. “We were warned … that there was going to be trouble,” said drummer Lee Young, “but most musicians are very positive people. I knew that there might be trouble, but I’m with [Nat], so I wasn’t going to say I’m not going … so we all went.”
At approximately seven o’clock, Cole strode onto the stage, “separated from the white musicians by a light curtain intended to soften the impact of Caucasians and African-Americans appearing on the same platform,” and was greeted by waves of eager applause. Backed by Ted Heath and his “Famous British Orchestra,” he acknowledged the audience warmly, then launched into his first song, “Autumn Leaves.” By the time Cole got to his third number, “Little Girl,” several audience members noticed a commotion in the back of the auditorium. There, a small group of men huddled in the darkness, awaiting a signal. The much-anticipated Nat “King Cole” concert, which had drawn thousands of music fans from across Alabama, was about to come to an abrupt and violent halt.
THE MEN WHO LURKED in the shadows that night represented the last gasps of life of a dying organization. Reactions to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, which mandated the desegregation of all public schools, had spawned the development of the White Citizens’ Council movement. Originating in Indianola, Mississippi, in July 1954, the councils had spread like a brush fire over Mississippi and Alabama. Unlike Klansmen, council members supposedly eschewed violence, choosing instead to combat desegregation through the court system and with economic pressure.
Council leadership in Alabama’s Black Belt fell to a forty-four-year-old Macon County planter named Sam Engelhardt. But in the central and northern sections of the state-along Alabama’s industrial corridor and in counties where blacks had historically made up a very small part of the population-Asa “Ace” Carter held sway over the movement. Born and reared in the east Alabama town of Oxford, the Navy veteran and ex-radio deejay had fashioned a career out of controversy and race baiting. After losing his job at Birmingham station WILD in 1955 for making numerous anti-Semitic remarks over the air, Carter began organizing chapters of the North Alabama Citizens’ Council (NACC) across the northern half of the state. His fiery oration, counterbalanced by his down-home demeanor, helped draw in thousands of recruits to the organization-each one looking to forestall the social and cultural changes that had been unleashed after the second World War. “We cannot be self-centered, nor filled with self-importance,” he would tell his followers. “There is too little time; there is too much to do; there is too vicious an enemy.”
With Engelhardt and Carter at the helm, the council movement grew exponentially. On February 10, 1956, they held a massive rally in Montgomery to protest the recent admission of a black student named Authentic Lucy to the University of Alabama. More than twelve thousand people, representing a cross section of southern society, were drawn to the event. “They filed in the coliseum doors in long lines, millionaires mingling with farmers, as many women as men, all with eager looks on their faces like people going to a Billy Graham revival,” noted one reporter. Amidst “rebel yells” and “thunderous applause,” some of the South’s leading segregationists paraded across the stage. The message they brought with them was nothing short of apocalyptic. “Unless we present an organized Southern front, we are going to be crushed,” declared Senator James Eastland of Mississippi. “I know you’re not going to let the NAACP take over your state and permit that organization to use your children as pawns in a game of racial politics.” The audience shouted back, “No! No!” Afterwards, the participants filed back out into the chilly night, “fresher in a determination to hold the line” of segregation. “It was, perhaps, high tide of the Council movement,” wrote one attendee. “After that night there could be no doubt that the South … had found in the Citizens’ Councils a flag to rally round. The Deep South was solid once more.”
Forty thousand Alabamians had reportedly joined the citizens’ council crusade since the formation of the first chapter back in 1954. But just as the movement hit its peak, it began to self-destruct.
The trouble started when Engelhardt and a group of prominent council members from the Black Belt created the Alabama Association of Citizens’ Councils (AACC)-an umbrella organization designed to coordinate action and policy between the various councils around the state. At its inaugural meeting, the group denied Carter a seat on the board of directors, in part because of his vocal opposition to the inclusion of Jews in the organization. Carter, in turn, accused Engelhardt and the rest of the “political big shots” of trying to monopolize the AACC and bend it to fit their own selfish designs.
At its core, the conflict was an ancient one, harking back to the nineteenth century. It was, according to one observer, “part of the old feud between the Bourbon and the Redneck.” Carter’s supporters, unlike many of those who joined the AACC, did not own mansions in the Black Belt, nor did they break bread at the Birmingham Country Club. They earned their livings as mechanics, foundry workers, refrigerator repairmen, and custodians. Like Carter, they harbored a profound distrust of politics and politicians, and blamed both for the plight of the working man. They joined the council movement because the prospects of integration and black advancement terrified them with the belief that their own precarious positions would be in jeopardy if either were accomplished.
At first, Carter and his working class followers had found common ground with their elite counterparts. They chartered council groups together, swapped tales at rallies, and presented a unified white front against the rising insurgency of blacks. But when the Engelhardt faction denied Carter a seat on the AACC board of directors and began to challenge his anti-Semitic stance in the press, all of the previous displays of brotherhood and goodwill quickly and very publicly dissolved into acrimony. The AACC “has been set up to capture the White Citizens’ Movement and to turn it… gradually into an echo of the move of the integration forces,” Carter wrote. “They ARE the enemy. They have been the enemy, they and their cowardly political kin, for twenty-five years.” By the beginning of March 1956, it was clear that the two sides were never going to reach an accord. Hundreds of NACC members had fled the organization, including three-fourths of the East Birmingham Council, which arguably had been the strongest of the north-central Alabama councils, attracting several lawyers, doctors, and businessmen into its fold. Once Carter veered off into anti-Semitism, though, these men quickly removed themselves from the scene, leaving only the sycophants and hard-core radicals behind. Carter took advantage of the defection to expand the reach and aim of his organization.
IN LATE MARCH, Carter initiated a campaign to rid the state of rock and roll music. In that month’s issue of The Southerner, the NACC’s newsletter, he wrote about a “Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll” show he had observed in Birmingham. he described the lurid spectacle of black artists performing in front of thousands of fawning white teenagers, who gyrated and pulsated to every bass note and clap of a snare drum. “[All] that the white man [has] built through his devotion to God . . . was crumbled and snatched away, as the white girls and boys were tuned to the level of the animal,” Carter wrote. He claimed that such music not only subverted white culture, but by its seductive rhythms destroyed the white teenager’s will to resist. It made teenagers more accepting of African American culture and, thus, more willing to embrace black social and political gains. Such a process was already at work, Carter explained, for when the teenagers filed out of the auditorium their conversation was peppered with “coarse negro phrases.”
Carter’s crusade to stamp out rhythm-and-blues and rock music was certainly not a novel idea. Across the nation, critics had emerged from every fold to cast derision and scorn upon such performers as Elvis Presley, the Drifters, and Carl Perkins, labeling their music “smutty” and “decadent.” They blamed rock-and-roll music, along with certain youth-oriented films, such as Blackboard jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, for the rise in postwar teenage delinquency. “We consider the situation to be as serious as an invasion of the enemy in war time,” wrote one nervous parent. “If we cannot stop the wicked men who are poisoning our children’s minds, what chance is there for mankind to survive longer than one generation, or half of one?”
Essentially, the backlash against rock music and youth culture in general could be boiled down to two issues: sex and power. This was particularly true in the South, where men like Carter exhibited a near-pathological concern over interracial sex and the safety of the womenfolk. Rock-and-roll and its suggestive lyrics, they asserted, were dissolving the line between the two races and “bringing the white girl [closer] to the negro male.” Garter wrote, “This we can gauge only by the everyday happenings, and observances of negroes on the street. You have seen it, the fleeting leer, the look that stays an instant longer . . . the savagery, now, almost to the surface.”
The threat of interracial coupling and miscegenation became the focal point around which much of the antirock-and-roll campaign seemed to revolve in the South. But it was not the single, solidifying issue that drove men to violence and led groups like the NACG to crusade against rock music. What boiled their blood had less to do with sex than it did with their own declining status in the world. The generation that had fought and won the second World War-a group that included Garter and many of his followers-expected to return to the same country they had left at the beginning of the conflict. But the war, much to their dismay, had permanently altered southern society-reconfiguring families, rearranging social and cultural patterns.
Veterans returned to the States to find their wives working in steel mills, driving buses, and doing things that would have seemed incomprehensible in 1940. Wartime spending had pulled the economy out of a depression and put more cash in the pockets of working men and women, meaning that families could now afford to build a home, purchase a new car, and enjoy more leisure time. Consequently, the children who came of age in the 1950s were more attuned to the outside world than their predecessors, and seemed less inclined to follow their parents’ leads.
Not only were they the first generation to grow up within the glow of a television screen-they now had greater access to newspapers, glossy magazines, radios, movie theaters, and the latest recordings of Elvis Presley. Simply put, the kids of the 1950s had more of everything-more information, more independence, more consumer choices, and more influences. And because of this, they came under intense scrutiny and criticism from their parents.
Generational divides became nearly impossible to bridge, particularly in a tradition-bound region like the South. When Carter and his cohorts preached their fiery sermons against rock and roll, they were not only doing it to prevent interracial coupling; they were attempting, however feebly, to retain control over their families. They were trying to restore what had somehow been lost in the decade since the war.
The NAGG kicked off its anti-rock campaign in Anniston during the last week of March 1956. Councilmen visited drugstores and restaurants in the city, demanding that proprietors remove all rock records from their jukeboxes. Carter instructed the councilmen that if owners or managers refused, their names were to be placed “on the list.” Similar strategies were employed in Birmingham, with council members applying varying degrees of pressure upon merchants, radio deejays, and concert promoters. They were determined to stamp out rock music in all its guises.
On April 6, a group of NACG men gathered at a West Anniston service station owned by Kenneth Adams, one of Garter’s chief lieutenants. “In the heady atmosphere of gasoline and crankshaft oil,” Adams lectured the men on the evils of rock-and-roll and bebop, elucidating the wicked, communistic intentions of the African American musicians who played such music to corrupt white teenagers and to invalidate the integrity of the color line.
To prevent further degradation and to draw the public’s attention to the problem, he proposed that one hundred white men, enlisted from northern and central Alabama, attend the Nat “King” Cole concert in Birmingham on April 10. When a signal was given, they would launch an attack on the performer. Some of the men were instructed to pummel and, if possible, kidnap Cole, while others were ordered to subdue band members or stand back and heave eggs at the stage. After the meeting, word of the impending action spread throughout the state, from council meeting to council meeting. Over the weekend, Adams received assurances that more than one hundred men, seething with racial animosities, would storm down the aisles and fall upon the “negroidal jazz musician” when the signal was given.
On Tuesday, April 10, Adams and several companions loaded into their cars and headed west to Birmingham, looking to end the threat of black music once and for all.
AS NAT “KING” COLE BEGAN his concert, Adams and his cohorts waited in the shadows for a signal to rush the stage. A spectator nearby overheard one of the men grumble, “Let’s go get that coon,” and watched in horror as several men started down one of the side aisles toward the stage. Only three men, rather than the estimated one hundred, had stood at the signal.
Panicked, the onlooker ran to Officer R. N. Higginbotham, who was surveying the crowd from the rear of the auditorium and shouted, “They’re going after him! They’re going down to the stage to get him!” Higginbotham immediately spotted the men approaching the singer and pursued them, hoping to intercept the group before it reached the stage. “I caught up with one guy [twenty-three-year-old Willis Richard Vinson] just as he was jumping up on the stage,” the officer said afterward. “I grabbed him, and he hit me in the face with a bottle. Then I hit him with my stick and somebody else grabbed him.”
Two other men, Adams and E. L. Vinson (Willis’s older brother), had already surged over the footlights by the time Higginbotham reached the stage. Adams hit Cole with a “flying tackle,” and the singer fell backward onto his piano bench, snapping it into two jagged pieces. Adams then snatched up one of Cole’s legs and attempted to drag him off the stage. just before he reached the edge, officers swarmed in from the wings, halting both attackers with a hail of fists and nightsticks. They handcuffed all three assailants and hustled them outside. Almost as soon as the melee had broken out, it was over.
For the audience, who sat in stunned silence throughout the ordeal, the whole affair seemed like an absurd comedy, purposely staged and chaotically performed by Cole and the Birmingham police. While officers had tangled with Adams and the Vinson brothers onstage, Lee Young had screamed to Ted Heath to begin playing the national anthem. The British bandleader had lifted his baton, and the orchestra had launched into the opening chords of “God Save the Queen,” prompting a member of Cole’s entourage to shout, “No, no! The American anthem, the American one!” To add to the spectacle, a few uniformed policemen had scuffled briefly with plain-clothes officers, believing they were part of a “second attack wave.” Despite such slips, police eventually managed to control the situation and whisked Cole away to safety.
Sitting in his dressing room moments later, nervously smoking a cigarette, the singer tried to come to terms with what had happened. “Man, I love show business,” Cole said, “but I don’t want to die for it.” Birmingham Mayor Jimmy Morgan and other officials rushed backstage to apologize to Cole, imploring him to continue the show. In the auditorium, the four thousand audience members shouted for the entertainer to come back out. A few minutes later, Cole reappeared onstage. The crowd stood and gave him a five-minute ovation. “They were really wonderful,” Cole said later. “They were trying to tell me in their own way that they don’t condone such actions.” As the applause subsided, the singer approached the microphone to speak. “I just came here to entertain you,” he told them. “That was what I thought you wanted. I was born here in Alabama.” Cole did not finish the interrupted performance, but did return later in the evening to do a second show for an all-black audience. It would be his last concert in Alabama.
Outside the auditorium, police continued to struggle with the attackers. “They were pretty tough fellows,” said one officer. “It took about eight of us to get one of them.” As the battle raged, Jesse Mabry, associate editor of The Southerner, taunted police officers, “You ought to have that damn Negro out here instead of those white folks.” When an officer ordered him from the scene, Mabry refused to go and was promptly arrested for disorderly conduct. Two other Anniston residents, Mike Fox and Orliss Clevenger, were apprehended as well and booked on conspiracy charges. Information garnered from one of the Vinson brothers had led police to a parked car outside the auditorium, where Fox and Clevenger sat waiting for the attackers to return. Inside the automobile, police discovered a nest of weapons, including brass knuckles, a blackjack, and a pair of .22 caliber rifles. all six perpetrators-Adams, Fox, Clevenger, Mabry, and the Vinson brothers-were eventually corralled into police cars and driven to city hall.
If Adams and Garter expected a wave of approbation after the assault upon Cole, they could not have been more mistaken. The attack was condemned from one end of the country to the other. Even the most ardent and diehard segregationists found the incident more than a little hard to swallow. “Some of the members of the Anniston Citizens’ Council have done much to discredit their organization,” a reporter for the Anniston Star declared, “for any body that attempts to rise above the law and take law-enforcement into their own hands will not be tolerated in a law-abiding community.”
Another man wrote, “Again, the spotlight of infamy is focused on Alabama. Again, we have permitted crude hoodlumism, masquerading under the guise of social salvation, to blacken the name of our state.” Even Engelhardt, who had once pledged to “keep every brick in our segregation wall intact,” felt pangs of remorse after the attack. “I deplore any violence in connection with the racial question,” he lamented. “We could have done without Cole coming to Alabama…. But that’s no way to settle anything, yell ‘kill the nigger’ and beat everybody up.”
In the face of such criticism, Carter, like the Confederate generals he profiled monthly in the pages of The Southerner, refused to admit defeat. A few days after the attack, he helped establish a White Peoples Defense Fund to help defray the costs of legal representation for the six perpetrators. he even cooked up a wild fish story in defense of his comrades, telling reporters that Adams and the others had been sent to the concert to simply “observe” the performance and take photographs. But when a black man knocked the camera out of Adams’s hand, the latter became incensed and charged the stage. “The Citizens’ Council doesn’t condone violence,” Carter said, “but I can understand when a man has been outraged and wants to take individual action.”
And rather than backing off the anti-rock-and-roll campaign after the Cole incident, the NACC turned up the heat. On May 8, Carter wrote a letter to Birmingham mayor Jimmy Morgan, demanding that he disallow any further use of the Municipal Auditorium “for indecent and vulgar performances by Africans before our white children.” On May 20, members of the NACC gathered outside the auditorium once more to protest a racially mixed concert by Bo Diddley, the Platters, and Bill Haley. They hoisted picket signs and banners, which read, “Jungle Music Aids Delinquency” and “Be Bop Promotes Communism.” Carter wrote that the purpose of the rally was “to call to the attention of white parents everywhere, that rock n’ roll, negroid, animalistic music is being used to drive the white youth to the level of the negro.” When a group of teens showed up, carrying pro-rock-and-roll signs, Gaiter fumed, “They were disgusting . . . pathetically so, since they were victims, not actually responsible.”
Despite these ongoing efforts to defend his followers and protect southern white youth against rock music, Carter continued to lose ground. Fewer and fewer people were bothering to show up at NACG rallies and meetings. all the press reports concerning the organization were negative and getting worse. On April 18, four of the individuals involved in the Cole attack-Clevenger, Fox, Mabry, and E.L. Vinson-were convicted of conspiracy to commit assault and battery. Tn December, Adams and Willis Vinson pled guilty to assault charges and were assessed small fines of fifty and one hundred dollars, respectively. With these convictions, the purportedly non-violent NACC was in trouble.
By the fall of 1956, the movement was in full decline-its strength sapped by controversy, petty infighting, and public apathy. Carter’s antics and his religious bigotry, along with the NACC’s propensity for violence, had forever damaged the “good name” of the White Citizens’ Council movement in Alabama. Never again would it muster the kind of forces it had arrayed after the Lucy affair. By the mid-1960s, all that remained of the once sprawling organization were a few diehards and “bitter-enders” who simply refused to accept the inevitable. “Ace killed it,” Engelhardt would say years later. “He killed the Council dead.”
FLYING OUT OF BIRMINGham the morning after the attack, Nat “King” Cole figured the worst was behind him. The ordeal had wounded both his back and his pride, and he had been forced to cancel upcoming shows in Raleigh and Charlotte, but otherwise the Montgomery native was fine. He had survived. But after landing at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Cole realized his troubles were just beginning.
Stepping off the plane, a swarm of clamorous reporters greeted the entertainer. When one of them asked if he planned to continue to perform in front of segregated audiences, Cole answered without hesitation. “Sure I will,” he said. “It’s my job to perform for them…. [It’s] foolish to think a performer like me can go into a Southern city and demand that audiences be integrated. The Supreme Court is having a hard time integrating schools. What chance do I have to integrate audiences?”
Cole’s remarks drew swift reaction. In Harlem, angry fans removed his records from jukeboxes and trampled them in the street. Thurgood Marshall said, “All Cole needs to complete his role as an Uncle Tom is a banjo.” The Chicago Defender concluded that “entertainers should stay out of politics and issues if they can’t give any better representation for the race than the ‘King.'”
The criticism hurt Cole deeply. For years he had battled racism in his own subtle way-bringing lawsuits against hotels for refusing him admittance and contributing funds to civil rights organizations. But all was forgotten in the wake of the attack. His reputation had been clearly damaged by the affair. In the end, the singer backed out of the controversy as best he could by purchasing a lifetime membership in the NAACP and vowing never to step foot in Alabama again.
Copyright University of Alabama Press Winter 2004
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