On 10 April 1956, Nat King Cole appeared onstage in Birmingham, AL in front of a sell-out crowd of 4,000 white audience members (concerts were segregated at the time, with performers playing to a white audience first and then to the black audience afterward). Cole was born in Montgomery, AL and was used to racist threats. Police had been tipped that their might be trouble at this performance and stood backstage. And there was trouble.
As Nat King Cole began the third song of his set, 4 men came running down through the auditorium, 2 down each aisle. 3 men made it across the footlights and onto the stage. They began to beat Cole, who was seated at his piano, and started to drag him across the stage when the police descended on the men.
Afterward, Cole returned to the stage and said, “I’d like to sing for you, but I’ve got to see a doctor." He had injured his back and cancelled the show for the night.
6 men were arrested (the 4 who rushed the stage, and 2 other men who were waiting outside with a carload of weapons – they had planned on kidnapping Cole), all affiliated with a Ku Klux Klan offshoot, who wanted to put a stop to the growing civil rights movement (which Cole was not part of at the time) and the growth of rock & roll music (which Cole did not play).
Cole continued to play segregated shows and was criticized for his non-involvement in the civil rights movement. 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.”
Cole eventually joined the NAACP and became an active and important participant in the civil rights movement.