Elvis Presley and the Culture of Racism Today
It is amazing how a decades-old lie resurfaces. Over 60 years ago an essay appeared in a Fort Worth magazine. That essay contained a lie about Elvis Presley, claiming he was an overt racist. The essay was quickly proven false at the time, yet it is continuously cited as an example. of his obvious racist roots.
Over 60 years ago, in 1957, shortly before Elvis appeared in the film Jailhouse Rock, a Fort Worth magazine called Sepia published an essay. The essay was quickly proven to be false. Yet despite that fact, it has been quoted many times repeatedly over the last 60 years — as if it was true.
The piece falsely claims that Elvis Presley made the following statement in an interview while speaking in a Television interview to CBS personality Edward R. Murrow.
“The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
Elvis quickly responded and immediately denied making the statement. However, the article was easily verifiable, since it mentioned specific places and locations. The Sepia article stated that Elvis made that comment in 1957, while in Boston (Elvis never appeared in Boston that year, or any year before 1957), to Edward R. Murrow in a TV interview (Elvis never appeared on Murrow’s show that year or any other year).
However, the quote took on a life of its own and quickly spread throughout the country. Considering Elvis’ rise in popularity at the time, it was written to expose Elvis as a “racist,” and to damage his spotless reputation. Many people at the time inquired about its truthfulness. One such person was Louie Robinson editor in Chief and publisher of Jet Magazine. (A Black-owned and focused publication). The article “The Truth About That Elvis Presley Rumor,” went into detail and proved that the statement was a lie. It is unfortunate that many people still quote that false statement over 60 years later as “proof” of Elvis’ racism.
Elvis himself was quick to dispel the rumor. He allowed a rare one-on-one interview with Louie Robinson shortly after the Sepia article appeared, in July 1957, to discuss the accusations. In the article, Elvis made it clear about the words that were attributed to him.
“I never said anything like that, and people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”
Robinson did not just take Elvis’ word and walk away. As a respected journalist, it was his goal to seek the truth. Louie went on to speak with people who knew Elvis from the time he was a young man in Tupelo, Mississippi and found many individuals who would comment on him on the record. At the time Elvis was at the pinnacle of his success, so finding people who may have disliked Elvis, might have been an easy task. But as a journalist, Robinson did not come to the article with a preconceived bias. He would work to provide a more in-depth analysis to uncover the truth. His goal was to determine if Elvis was not only telling the truth but covering up something far more deeply embedded in his heart, and his past. After extensive research, Robinson went on to confirm and conclude in the essay that Elvis did not make that remark, and that the person he spoke with was an honest person without racist tendencies.
Robinson also interviewed many friends, people around Memphis, as well as Elvis’ musical contemporaries. He spoke to many people both black and white that personally knew him in his neighborhood. He spoke with people who knew him growing up, who would speak about how he interacted with people. Robinson did not have an editorial agenda. His agenda was to follow the truth. Everyone Robinson spoke with was clearly quoted as stating that they never for a moment believed a statement like that to be true of Elvis. Included in that group, was a local black church leader in Tupelo who met Elvis when he visited black churches growing up. He spoke of Elvis as someone who knew him: “he doesn’t impress me as a person who would say a thing like that.” Those Robinson interviewed spoke of Elvis’ demeanor as respectful of all people. Robinson’s journalistic background and credibility in the black community at the time were impeccable, If anyone interviewed would have reported the statement to be remotely accurate, Robinson would have reported it. He ended the article by quoting a contemporary of Elvis’, whose name was not revealed “To Elvis, people are people regardless of race, color, or creed. “
It is an interesting fact about things that are printed. If they are in print, people immediately assume, then it must be true. Printed words seem to take on a life of their own, and never seem to disappear, especially negative words. It is also difficult to prove a negative to be true, all it would take is a single agreement. However, Robinson could not find anyone. It goes to show that anything in print will be believed, even when untrue (a note to think about for our internet bloggers of today). It is unfortunate that a disgusting rumor which began in 1957 is still quoted over 60 years later. The internet seems to perpetuate that today, and it has become worse. Today, a negative statement if uttered without proof is believed, and others continually perpetuate it through social media.
I came to this conclusion after a number of detailed articles appeared on my news feed a few weeks ago, and another as recently as last Thursday. I felt that I needed to address and dispel this falsehood in my own way. Ignoring it in the past has only increased their existence. The fact that these statements have appeared twice in a month concerns me. The two articles were written in two separate times and were reposted during the last few weeks. The Daily Beast published their essay in 2016 by Stereo Williams, and The Wrap in 2018 by Tim Molloy. Both essay’s foundation was based on the above rumor about what Elvis was accused of saying. While The Daily Beast article goes a bit further claiming that all of Rock and Roll is based upon racist roots. The Wrap essay quotes a documentary film called The King, which seems to believe that Elvis’ racism is a fact.
We have come a long way as a society in the last 65 years. What was real and normal in 1954, is no longer true in 2019. However, it is strange that in 2019, if you turn on the news, the narrative seems to be that racism today is as bad or worse than it was 60 years ago; that it is prevalent throughout our society, and most of “white” America is racist by today’s standards.
Jim Crowe laws have been abolished, and I have not seen signs of outward racism today. Many of the people I know and work with have never uttered a racist comment in my presence. Except, wherever we look in media, it seems to be a prevalent theme. We are no longer the United States of America, we have been put into camps of White America vs. Black America. If a person believes something or does something different than what the mainstream believes, they are branded a racist. Once wearing that cloak, like the Scarlet Letter, you are now, and ever will be a racist. If your words are not eloquent, and well thought out, even if they have been precisely edited; expect someone to take them out of context as an example of actual racism. Racism seems to be something that people want to accept as valid — even when it is untrue or proven to be false.
These claims continually get some play, in entertainment, in political correctness, and in social media. It is a clear agenda item, and everything spoken is viewed under this lense of suspicion. Especially if it is against a cultural icon or someone in the news, a leader or someone who at the moment is deemed important. The salaciousness of the accusations will always lend themselves to credibility. They will get a mention continually because it is a perception that some want to believe as the truth. Especially if it fits an Agenda or narrative of the day.
It is unfortunate that both articles appeared on my Elvis Newscast site. My site gathers Elvis news posted throughout the internet. These articles in particular for some reason got the lead on my website on that day’s issue. On the surface, they looked like relevant news. But unfortunately, they were based on lies.
We, as a society, continually look at the past with glasses that were never designed to see into an individual’s heart and then we seem to double down on the hatred when the past does not represent the morality of the present. Why were the Daily Beast’s Stereo Williams article published in 2016, and Mr. Malloy’s essay in January 2018 somehow re-posted recently? This is a question that should be asked. Was it done to strike at the core of our society, and its social icons? Because no one could be a more significant cultural Icon in the last 60 years than Elvis himself.
I notice that today society will go to extraordinary lengths to create negative narratives — even if it never was, or had a trace of reality associated with it. Today, many in the print and entertainment media will aim to destroy anyone they disagree with, and then double down on claims without proof with social media chiming in to pile on — as if they knew the truth all along. This is the epitome of social bullying, and it is done all of the time. It is done to our children in school, and we do it to each other. Just try posting something that is against a large group of people on a facebook site, and watch as the pile-on begins. (note the reaction to this article after it is posted).
Even a beloved cultural icon such as Elvis Presley who has been dead over 40 years is not immune, despite the lack of truthfulness of the charge. Today, there is no way for Elvis to defend himself. But he did so immediately after it was alleged in 1957. The statement was quickly proven to be false, yet it still continues to exist. As it persists, more and more people have argued that it was true. People believe what they want to believe — despite facts. (I cannot count how many times I heard “Elvis Presley said…. “ quoting the Sepia statement) Then they will add on to it with more lies ensuring it will continue living.
The fact that this quote lives to this day, as “proof” of Elvis’ obvious Racism, fuels some of the Black community’s hatred over Elvis’ rise to prominence in the 1950s. The Hip Hop Artist Chuck D (Public Enemy), believed it to be true… in 1989, he based an entire song on that quote by writing — “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me. See straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain…” It was a song chosen for a Spike Lee movie called Do the Right Thing. The record sold millions of copies and continues to be played on Hip Hop stations.
There are also claims that Elvis did nothing for the black community. They believe that he appropriated their music. It has also moved into politics; Democrat political pundit, (and former member of the Obama administration), Van Jones absolutely believes that to be true. In an interview in the 2018 documentary called “The King.” Van Jones said the following:
VAN JONES: My father was born in Memphis in 1944, and there’s probably nobody he hated more than Elvis Presley. As a black kid seeing a white man take black music and become famous and not do anything for black people was a horrible offense. I think it’s very hard to express sometimes the frustration that black people feel having given so much to the culture and that great value, which really helps to define America, ultimately benefiting others.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jones, nor his father knew anything of Elvis, neither did Public Enemy, who has since altered his belief, despite making millions from the recording. Neither one of them cared to look at what Elvis actually “DID” to support black artists, but rather they focus on their sole opinion as their basis of fact. They “hate” him for a single reason — he was a “white” entertainer who went onto enormous success. To Jones and his father, Elvis did not achieve his place based upon his talent, but rather on the back of black entertainers at the time — who deserved it more. Elvis ONLY succeeded because of the color of his skin. His talent and charisma had nothing to do with it
It is probably more important to note that Elvis’ success had a large positive effect on black musicians. Elvis’ reach had a cascading effect on the black community. Black artists after Elvis became famous, played to audiences they never reached before. Black artists started to earn more money for their performances because they no longer played solely to smaller limited black audiences, but to a wider more diverse audience. Little Richard was quoted as saying:
“He was an integrator, Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”
Van Jones is a CNN commentator, and he has a considerable following in the black community. It is sad that he purposely chose to tear down a good man and his reputation, 40 years after his death. At the same time, I would ask if he had ever examined what good Elvis actually did for the black community? The Wrap essay, the Daily Beast article and the accusations made on the documentary film are examples that some want Elvis to change the narrative and have Elvis to be perceived as a Racist entertainer. This would diminish his impact and would make him less of a cultural icon. In other words, it would diminish his contribution, not only to black music but all music as well.
Many continue to believe that Elvis should be remembered as someone who appropriated black music and culture. That he didn’t do anything to further black artists at the time. They look at the fruits of his labor (the money, fame, and adulation he received), not his genius at altering Rhythm & Blues to create the foundation of Rock and Roll. People neglect to see the effect of the early days of television and the promotion of his Manager behind the scenes. People refuse to see the effects of the culture and social economics of the time to base their accusations. Elvis should not be criticized for succeeding in the environment that existed atthe time. This world was not available to anyone until Elvis kicked the door open.
Individuals who look at 1954–1960 through the prism of today, lack the proper perspective. They deny any critical examination of the time: as if history was stagnant; as if the civil rights era did not include many who were not black, but were a necessary catalyst for change. It is clear that judging history by today’s standards is an exercise that is has a flawed foundation. The prism of time, social customs, and attitudes cannot be discounted and must be placed in context to be examined. Regardless of how painful or ridiculous the cultural norms seemed at the time, they still existed and drove people to act defeat them.
Unfortunately, allegations against Elvis Presley, though proven false, continue to be retold. These statements are perpetuated by many who refuse to even see Elvis’ contributions to the changing society. The false allegations will be used to prove once again, what people want to believe to be the truth is fact — regardless of their veracity. Lies will continue to be repeated, regardless of the real truth. It is sad that lies which have been perpetuated for over 60 years never disappear.
Fortunately, true Elvis fans know the truth. The facts are indisputable and proven, that Elvis appreciated and admired Black music and culture. History has proven that Elvis was instrumental in introducing Black music to traditionally white America. Rhythm & Blues (R&B) may well have stayed in obscurity for an even longer time, without Elvis and others such as Sam Phillips (Sun Records); DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation); and Ahmet Ertegün (founder of Atlantic Records). These individuals saw the value of black music on American culture and moved to educate people who never heard these songs before.
Elvis emulated the Black culture; their dress, the sound, and style; he built his music upon what at the time was called “race music” (the R&B sound) — But Elvis did not just imitate the R&B sound. He clearly enhanced the sound, as well as its visibility to a youth that was looking for something different. Elvis would always give credit to black artists who preceded and influenced him, which allowed them to prosper as their genius was exposed to a culture not predisposed to it. Elvis ensured that the music which was to influence him was exposed to a broader audience.
Elvis always acknowledged R&B as his starting point for what ultimately morphed into the genre of Rock and Roll. At no point did he take credit for “creating Rock and Roll.” Quite the opposite was true, he was always mentioning those who influenced him. In 1956, at the peak of his rise in popularity, Elvis promoted Black R&B artists, and he was regularly seen at events and concerts that were considered “Black only”. He participated and lent his reputation and fame to some predominantly black causes. (i.e., December 7th, 1956 annual fundraiser for “needy Negro children,”) which after his appearances raised more money than ever before.
He always as a matter would help promote and highlight up and coming black causes in the Memphis area, whenever he was asked. At the time, this was behavior unheard of by other white artists. Just being a part of the moment, and actually showing up would lend credibility to these causes. In the end, they would begin to receive increased donations. Many of his contemporaries advised Elvis to stay away, but Elvis purposely scoffed at the notion. He refused to let societal norms define him, or dictate who he should be acquainted with. Later on, when his presence would only cause a disruption of unruly crowds and problems with security, he continued his support by donating a significant amount of money to these causes privately and encouraging many of his entertainment friends to do so as well.
Throughout his entire career, Elvis would support black artists by both attending their shows or mentioning their personal contributions to him. Elvis was very close to local Memphis black artists and stars throughout his career. Artists such as B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Little Junior Parker, were part of his close friends. He went out of his way supporting their careers as well, by suggesting that they appear in venues such as Las Vegas, and places throughout the south. Elvis publicly thanked B.B. King ‘for all the early (guitar) lessons you gave me.’ He continually gave credit to black artists who preceded him. He never laid claim to inventing Rock and Roll. In the same Jet article Robinson quoted Elvis as saying:
‘A lot of people seem to think I started this business,’ Elvis explained, ‘but rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it; I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.’
Jackie Wilson, once said of Elvis Presley:
‘A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis’
Later on, Elvis would be credited in helping artists such as James Brown achieve mainstream status by attending their shows, and sitting in a conspicuous place so that he would be noticed. Once again, Elvis did this to provide personal support. Seeing Elvis at a concert caused many to recognize their potential, while they were still unknown. It caused many who were not predisposed to Soul or R&B to listen to their music for the first time. James Brown frequently visited Graceland as a guest of his friend and was one of the only Entertainment artists during his funeral to be allowed to sit beside Elvis at his viewing by the Presley family. It is documented that James Brown was visibly upset at Elvis’ passing, and never left Elvis’ side for two days of grieving.
B.B, King said the following of his friend Elvis Presley,
“If you ask anyone, I’m talking about people from all kinds of music — Blues, Soul, Country, Gospel, whatever — and if they are honest with you and have been around long enough to know — they’ll thank Elvis for his contributions. He opened many doors, and by all his actions, not just his words, he showed his love for all people.”
“People don’t realize that when ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ was first played (by Dewey Phillips in July 1954) no one had ever heard anything like that record. It wasn’t just country. It was Rhythm and Blues. It was Pop music. It was music for everybody. This is important.”
If a time capsule were buried today and unearthed in 100 years, an individual would find a significant amount of coverage about Racism today. Fair or not, it is a part of our culture and our society. It is currently peddled by a media that is looking to divide people based upon barriers that cannot be changed. (Race is a classic example). Blaming people of the past for believing a certain way is like condemning all doctors of past generations of malpractice. Some things commonplace in the past are considered barbaric today (bleeding a patient with leeches, curing mental illness with lobotomies, playing football without a helmet), yet, these practices were deemed to be normal practices at the time. Do we condemn all doctors as murderers for treating patients based upon cures that were never invented yet? While racism was prevalent in the Jim Crowe south, many felt Elvis worked to tear down barriers.
Judging someone you don’t know based upon a preconceived belief is wrong, on both sides. It is essential that we bridge the gap by learning about our fellow human beings, and the motivation for their actions. We can then begin to learn what Dr. King stated to “judge people by the content of their character.” In 1968 shortly after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elvis clearly wanted to express his support for Dr. King’s cause. He believed in Dr. King’s mission (Elvis is noted to have committed the “I Have a Dream” speech to Memory, and recited on many occasions.). Elvis directed that a song be written for him to perform. That song was used to end his career-altering 1968 special with that song. Iy was a political action song that was written as an answer to Dr. King’s speech, and performed (against the wishes of his then manager Colonel Tom Parker). The Song entitled “If I Can Dream,” by Earl Walter Brown was a meant to illustrate a cause Elvis felt strongly about and believed needed to be presented to his fans worldwide. The song echoed his feelings about the Civil Rights era.
It is clear that we cannot erase the past. We also cannot condemn everyone who lived through it as if they supported abhorrent behavior, just because they were there. It is important to understand the prism of the times, ad the norms that existed. At that point, we can determine if anyone contributed to changing them.
Holding people in the past accountable for cultural differences that existed, is one thing; especially if they did nothing but stood by and continually allowed atrocities to happen. But calling someone in the past or present a racist based solely on the color of their skin, or affinity of one sound over another is wrong. Declaring a false perception that someone did nothing to help when they, in fact, did do something…. minimizes their value to society. Could more have been done by Elvis and others at the time? … there is no answer to that question because we do not know what these people did behind the scenes. We can never know what outcome would have occurred, or what entertainers like Elvis did in the background. Is a remark based upon a prejudicial notion of what is believed to be true, not a prejudiced statement? Unlike today’s artists, who look for attention, Elvis did many things without looking for attention, validation or publicity. He did not seek approval for his actions, that was not his way.
Many in the black community had continually used the Sepia quote, to prove the illegitimacy of Elvis Presley and his position in Rock and Roll history as well as his impact on the world.
Elvis Presley was an entertainer, he was not a political activist. Those who appreciated him and bought his records did so because they liked him, and how he entertained them. In the 1960’s it was not common for entertainers to speak of their political views. Blaming Elvis for not playing the role of social activist, is not fair. Elvis made it abundantly clear that he chose not to speak out on the issues of the time, while today it is commonplace (good or bad) in the entertainment industry. His actions, however, were much different. Elvis did many things to do his part to promote cultural diversity, many of them done privately. He provided support and did things that others would never know about (Elvis was a private individual, who did not broadcast his actions to help others). He appeared at functions to lend his credibility and befriended those who he felt held the same beliefs. How much more should he have done, is a debate that can never be answered?
Our country has still not come to grips with the radical change that has occurred in our society in the last 65 years. Our world is different from the world I was born into. What was normal in 1955, or 1960 is seen as abhorrent today. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crowe laws perpetuated separate facilities based upon color. There were separate neighborhoods, restaurants, and facilities for blacks and whites. There were separate water fountains, separate bathroom facilities, separate places to sit on the bus. Even separate dining places and schools to educate children. It was a disgraceful time, yet we need to accept what was done since to eradicate them from existence.
B.B. King in an article from San Antonio writer Texas Jackson for NewsLegit.com said the following about his relationship with Elvis Presley. It is an excellent example of mutual respect and friendship bridging a gap:
“I told Elvis once, and he told me he remembered I told him this, is that music is like water. Water is for every living person and every living thing.”
King raised his finger up as if Elvis was still in front of him and profoundly declared:
“Water from the white fountain don’t taste any better than from the black fountain. We just need to share it, that’s all. You see, Elvis knew this, and I know this.
Today thankfully, we don’t have white fountains and black fountains in existence anymore. It is yet another shocking reminder of a past that is no longer even in our rearview mirror. It is a remnant of another time, which everyone should ensure should never happen again. The fact that B.B. King brought it up as an example of Elvis’ apparent disdain for the practice was an essential reminder for everyone of a past practice that has been obliterated.
Elvis knew that water was life and it was the same life for all races, regardless of what society felt. Both men did what they could at the time to ensure that these practices would cease to exist. The memories, the sentiment and the bond that existed between two contemporaries continued long after Elvis’ death and lasted over 40 years afterward. The painfulness of the past and standards set by others would never define their friendship. They fought together to break these ridiculous standards and eliminate them.
Today, these symbols no longer exist, they are remnants of an ugly past. Many people of all races would join them and fight together to ensure our country would eliminate barriers that kept people apart. What remained after time would be friendship — which continued long after Elvis’ death of 40 years earlier. B.B. King made a profoundly beautiful statement about his friend Elvis Presley. B.B. King never forgot Elvis nor his contributions. He never forgot how they each helped one another early in their careers. This was a lifelong friendship, in which neither of them looked at the color of their skin to define their admiration of one another. Both are now gone, and what is left is a legacy to our culture. An example of how we all should live our lives.
If the world understood this example, then maybe, the Sepia article will never be mentioned again. If the world realized this simple premise, it is possible that the culture of racism would disappear. Then it can become a possibility that we could “(D)ream of a better land where all our brothers walk hand in hand!” (from If I Can Dream — written by Earl Walter Brown, performed by Elvis Presley in the 1969 NBC Comeback Special).
Dr. King said it perfectly :
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
F.R. D’Onofrio is the author of an upcoming Non-fiction book entitled Elvis: The King of Rock and Roll. The book chronicles Elvis’ rise from a single moment in 1954 to the moment he was crowned The King of Rock and Roll. It will be available in 2020.
His email address: frdonofrio@Elvis_the_King_of_RockandRoll.com. Feel free to contact him.
His blog is https://elvis-the-king-of-rockandroll.com/ feel free to express your thoughts and comment.