Nat "King" Cole's Civil War: How Pop Music's Intimate Sounds and the US Military's Intimate Spaces Ignited Alabama's Racial Tensions in the 1950s

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Thompson, Joseph, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia

This article uses the April 10, 1956 attack on Nat “King” Cole during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama by members of the working-class, neo-Confederate North Alabama Citizens’ Council (NACC) to explore local racial dynamics in the wake of global military conflict, desegregation, and the postwar explosion of popular culture. Specifically, this research will consider the race relations in the attackers’ hometown of Anniston, Alabama, site of U. S. military installation Fort McClellan, as a motivating factor in the violence directed towards Cole. To this end, this work seeks to understand how the simultaneous housing and training of African American male and white Women’s Army Corps (WAC) troops at Fort McClellan helped create an intolerable situation for the NACC, which imagined itself as a twentieth century extension of the Confederacy and sought targets for their specific brand of white supremacy. This article also incorporates theories from the field of sound studies to examine Cole’s production values allows an access point into the minds of the assailants, as well as his white southern fans. Cole benefited from advances in recording technologies that welcomed soft vocals and deep reverberations to create a lush, intimate sound that earned him legions of white fans and collaborative opportunities with white musicians. In this way, Cole’s intimate, interracial sound mirrored Fort McClellan’s intimate, interracial spaces and conjured images of interracial sex in the imaginations of the NACC. While these considerations provide new and substantial evidence concerning the attack on Cole, they also speak to broader issues, ones with resonance for the development of the South and the nation across the late twentieth century. Combining the factors of government expansion, racial integration, and recording technologies demonstrates the unintended consequences of military buildup and African American music as provocations for racism and anti-statism in the Sun Belt South.

MA (Master of Arts)
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