Performing in front of 4,000 in Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium, aghast onlookers witnessed three White men, who were members of the North Alabama Citizens Council, knock Cole to the ground. Luckily, the attackers were quickly apprehended by police waiting on the sides of the stage and Cole would return to finish his performance in a courageous move.
According to accounts read in Alabama newspaper the Florence Times, the singer was met with a passionate standing ovation and tears from members of the audience who were appalled by what they had seen. Three other men were arrested in the plot, and outside the venue, a car loaded with weapons was found.
At the time, the Council was led by KKK leader and famed novelist Asa “Forrest” Carter, and the attack was said to be part of the group’s plot to stop rock & roll music from being played publicly. The move was an obvious oversight as Cole did not perform music from that genre, but the attack was clearly motivated by racism.
Watch coverage of Cole’s attack here:
Cole was performing with English orchestra band leader Ted Heath at the time, and much of the audience members in attendance were considered part of high society. Considering he was a native of the state, Cole’s response to the attack, though, was controversial at the time:
“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? I’d just like to forget about the whole thing,” said Cole regarding his attack.
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.