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Music

The complicated role Nat King Cole played in the civil rights movement

On February 15th, 1965, the world lost Nat King Cole, one of the most soothing voices in jazz music, to lung cancer aged just 45. Most will see the star as almost synonymous with the festive season given that his most famous song, ‘The Christmas Song’, remains one of the all-time favourite holiday staples.

‘The Christmas Song’ marked the first popular holiday song recorded by a Black American, a significant moment that opened the door for the likes of Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Lou Rawls, among many others, who would all follow suit in releasing classic festive favourites. On top of his Christmas classics, Cole released a bounty of other heart-warming hits, such as ‘Unforgettable’ and ‘L-O-V-E’. While remembered fondly for his voice, Cole was an accomplished jazz pianist and songwriter who enjoyed over 30 hits reaching the coveted rungs of the Billboard 100 chart in the US. 

Despite being revered today as a vocal legend, Cole wasn’t originally interested in singing, it was the piano that first grabbed his attention. As a child, Cole played the organ and sang with his family at church. His older brother, Eddie, was a talented multi-instrumentalist who was a keen disciple of jazz music, much to the dissatisfaction of their father. Eddie encouraged Cole to learn to read music while learning the piano and before long Cole had become a young prodigy. 

At the age of 15, Cole dropped out of school to follow his passion for jazz music and began to perform regularly alongside his brother. As legend has it, one night, a drunk customer demanded that Cole and the group he was with sing for them. Initially, Cole refused, replying: “We don’t sing”. However, after some persuasion from the manager who explained that the customer was a “big spender”, Cole agreed. His initial cover of ‘Sweet Lorraine’ was so well-received that he continued to sing, and his natural talent, both on the piano and vocally, began to yield the attention it deserved.

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Adding to the wonderment of the talented musician’s career was the circumstances in which he rose to prominence. As an African American performer active during the height of the Jim Crow era, Cole was subjected to the racially discriminatory barriers that made his level of success unprecedented. While not an active protester for the Civil Rights Movement during most of his career, Cole was a pioneer who paved the way for a new generation of Black musicians who could have more confidence in their talents being recognised by people all over the country – not just in their local region or within the boundaries of their ethnic background. 

Throughout his career, Cole was subject to a number of racist taunts and attacks. In July 1948, he and his wife Maria had found their ideal marital home in Hanock Park, Los Angeles. Hanock Park, however, was an all-white neighbourhood that had a “restrictive covenant” under the Jim Crow laws which barred non-whites from living there unless they were household servants. Their estate agent circumvented the rules by asking a light-skinned Black woman to buy the property for the Coles. 

Unfortunately, arguments broke out when the neighbourhood committee discovered that the Coles were moving in; during a meeting, residents expressed that they didn’t want “undesirables” around, to which Cole replied, “Neither do I and if I see any undesirables coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain”. After a lengthy back and forth, the Coles were reluctantly allowed to remain in the neighbourhood, but their lives became plagued with racial discrimination and threats, including racist signs being put on their front lawn, firecrackers being thrown onto their property, a shot being fired into their house and someone even killing their dog using poisoned meat. Despite the horrific treatment, the Coles remained in the neighbourhood in defiance until Cole’s death in 1965.

By 1956, Cole was a national star touring the country. When he visited his home state of Alabama to perform in Birmingham, he was assaulted on stage by members of the KKK. He had taken a knock to the knees that caused him to fall to the ground. Fortunately, he was mostly unscathed save for a minor back injury, but when encouraged to continue with his set by the all-white audience, Cole refused and proceeded to cancel his final three dates in the south. Following the incident, the musician stated in bafflement: “I can’t understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organisation fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?”.

Despite Cole’s acts of defiance in the face of adversity and threat, he opted to remain disconnected from the Civil Rights Movement for most of his career and saw himself as “an entertainer, not a politician”. After his statement following the attack in Birmingham, Alabama, Cole became the subject of criticism from civil rights leaders who felt that his absence from protests to fight racism and segregation was nothing to be proud of. He was also criticised for agreeing to perform in front of segregated audiences and had been called an ‘Uncle Tom’ on occasion. Cole was naturally upset by such criticisms and so during the late 1950s and early ‘60s he made more of a concerted effort to be more active in the movement.

In 1963, Cole participated in the March on Washington and, later in the decade, he began to perform more regularly at benefit concerts for civil rights organisations. While Cole wasn’t a major public activist of the Civil Rights Movement, it has been noted that he was very outspoken about his concerns in private with his high-profile friends, including President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Despite clearly caring a great deal for the pursuit of racial equality in the US, it appears that Cole took a rather reserved involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. As far as I can derive, Cole likely chose to remain away from the table of political debate as a means of safeguarding his career prospects. In his statement addressing his surprise following the on-stage attack in Alabama, he showed that he understood the undesirable implications of becoming a leading force in the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps Cole’s mainstream success could be partially attributed to his lack of public political commentary. The saving grace, however, is that he seemed to have friends in very high places, so he may have been more effective in the Civil Rights Movement than we’ll ever know.

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