Those of you who know me, even a little, know that I find racism and prejudice both comical in their archaic nature and pitifully sad in the loss of experience one suffers from it. In terms of tackling such issues, there are as many approaches as there are issues to tackle. Some take to the streets and protest peacefully such as the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. A great and effective approach. Some take to the streets to riot, which in my opinion not only compounds the problem, but adds validity to the fools speaking the racist and prejudice statements in the first place. There are legal actions, social actions, political actions and many others. Personally, I find actions that do not victimize others and bring about needed social change are all good.
All that being said, I believe there is one way that towers above all the others in not only bringing about long-term social change, but may be the only way that stands a chance in succeeding to bring change to the hearts and minds of those who hold these archaic and asinine views. Before we get to what I think that may be, I want to share a store about a man that I feel embodies this example and share with you not only some of the things he went through, but of course, how he handled them as well. He is both my favorite singer of all time, but also a great man. He is Nat King Cole.
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born March 17th, 1919 in Montgomery Alabama. Born the son of a Baptist minister, the Coles family moved to Chicago when Nat was 4 years old in search of a better life. He began to learn the piano from his mother at the age of 4 and began formal lessons at the age of 12. Nat went on to become one of the most accomplished Jazz pianists of all time. Initially, he did not sing until a drunk patron at a club he was playing insisted he did. Told by the owner that this patron was a well-paying customer and that if Nat valued his job he should learn to sing right then and there. Reluctantly, Nat began to sing Sweet Lorraine. The rest, as they say, is history. Nat King Cole went on to sell millions of albums, have over 100 songs that became hits on the pop charts and starred in film and television.
This is not to say that Nat had an easy go of it, personally or professionally. Most of his success came in the 1940’s and 1950’s before the civil rights movements. I would like to highlight some of the challenges he faced and how he handled them. He was often not allowed to stay in the very hotels that he played at and made money for. What did he do? He quietly sued them after, winning many cases. Those he did not, he chose not to play again and share his talent, and the business it generated, with more accepting locations.
In July of 1948, coming off such hits as The Christmas Song, Nature Boy and Mona Lisa, Nat and his wife Maria wanted to settled down and purchased a house in the affluent, and all white, Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angles. When the neighborhood association learned that a black entertainer was moving into their neighborhood they want to see Cole’s manager and told him they would pay back the down payment as well as some profit if Nat would not buy the house. He refused. They then held a special meaning to try to solve the issue. Nat decided to attend. After many racist and angry things were said, one man attempting to ease tensions told Nat, “Mr. Cole, we just to not want any undesirables in this neighborhood.” What did Nat do? Did he bristle at the statement? Did he counter the insult of being called an ‘undesirable’ with one of his own? Both of those certainly would have been understandable. Did he use his fame to denounce the people and the neighborhood in the press as celebrities are so quick to do these days? Nope. Nat simply stood up and said, “I’m with you. I do not want any undesirables in this neighborhood either. If I see some I will be the first one to complain.” The Coles were allowed to move in. Through the years they were subject to signs and burning crosses in their yard. Someone even poisoned their dog. Through it all, Nat and his family would not take the bait and continued to be the example of perfect neighbors. In turn, making all of those who wished them out of the neighborhood look like the foolish ones.
Even professionally, Nat was not immune to the reality of racism. Despite being an accomplished and award-winning performer, this was made quite evident on a return trip to his home state. On April 10, 1956 Nat was performing to an all white audience in Birmingham Alabama when he was viciously attacked by six men. The men had ties to an organization that was tied to the Klu Klux Klan. After the attack when he returned to the stage the white audience gave him a 10 minute standing ovation. Did Nat swear at the audience or storm out? No he simply told the audience, “I came here to entertain you. That was what I thought you wanted. I was born in Alabama. Those folks hurt my back. I cannot continue because I need to see a doctor.” Later when pressed for his opinions on the attack, Cole seemed confused as to why they chose to attack him as he was just trying to entertain them. By refusing to speak out against his attackers and instead take the high road, Mr. Cole was also attacked, albeit in the press, by the African American community including Thurgood Marshall who called him an “Uncle Tom.” Perhaps Mr. Marshall did not appreciate the resolve and control it takes to suffer such indignity and keep your pride and head held high. Nat did involve himself in Civil Rights, such as joining the legendary 1963 March On Washington, but always insisted he was an entertainer and not a politician.
In 1956, Nat King Cole continued to break more barriers by becoming the first African American to host a weekly national television program. It was the first time that a black man would appear on television in the homes of millions Americans. The show had everything you could want. It had great music, a comic edge and great guests, both black and white. It continued to climb in the ratings and was eventually given a prime time slot. Something unheard of in the mid 1950’s. After a little more than a year of continued success, the one thing the show did not have was a national sponsor. Companies were still not brave enough to link their products with an African American performer, no matter how accomplished, articulate and well-liked he was. What was Nat’s reaction? Did he get on his show and beg for a sponsor? Did he call out and attack the companies for not having the guts to sponsor his show? No. Nat, facing the fact the network would not continue a show, no matter how successful it was, if it didn’t bring in money, canceled his own show. His one comment on the matter? “Madison avenue is afraid of the dark.”
I can appreciate the desire of and the need for more in-your-face solutions to behavior that is as stupid as racism and prejudice. There certainly needs to be a spotlight on those folks who engage in this behavior and make them accountable. For my money, one of the best ways to approach those who attack us for reasons such as these is the one taken by Nat King Cole. Remain dignified. Conduct yourself in everything you do with class and excellence. When those sink to behavior that speaks to their diminished character, you shine by showing them your high character. It is not about letting people walk all over you, but becoming the best version of yourself so their attacks not only fall flat but look foolish as well. When someone considers you ‘undesirable’ for any reason, do what Nat did. Stand right next to them and say, “I am with you I don’t want any undesirables around and if I see one, you will be the first to know.” Not only will you have them feeling foolish, you stand a better chance of changing their minds than if you attacked them for their ignorance.