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Debunking the Perennial Rumor That Elvis Was a Racist

Updated on February 26, 2019
Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock
Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock | Source

The Fabricated Quote that Initiated the Nasty, Unfounded Rumor

"The only thing negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes". That is the disgusting, fabricated remark that was attributed to Elvis Presley back in 1957 at the peak of his fame and success. Presley supposedly made the remark while in Boston, Massachusetts according to one account and on Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person television show according to another source. The only problem is, Presley never set foot in Boston and never appeared on Murrow's television program!

Researchers at the time found it excruciatingly difficult to trace this supposed statement back to its origin and made the decision to get the answer from the alleged horse's mouth. Louie Robinson of Jet Magazine elected to confront Elvis on the set of his film "Jailhouse Rock". After being asked if he had made the racist remark, Presley responded by saying "I never said anything like that and people who know me know I wouldn't have said it". Satisfied with the sincerity in Presley's eyes and the tone of his voice, Robinson came away from the meeting convinced it was an outright lie. Robinson found Presley only guilty of one thing: "judging people regardless of race, color or creed".

Theory As to How and Why the Rumor Began

Back in 1957 a white owned magazine called "Sepia" ran an article about Presley and how he was perceived by blacks. According to the magazine, blacks were ambivalent when it came to Elvis. Some didn't care for him while others had immense love and respect for the man. One section of the article allegedly canvassed African Americans on the street and the remark was born out of that story. This author believes that one of the people that didn't care for Elvis perhaps feeling that he was benefiting from recording "black music" while being white and not realizing that Presley was opening the door for those artists to walk through, upon being asked his opinion about Elvis said something to the effect of "Elvis doesn't care about black people. He only thinks we are good for buying his records and shining his shoes".

Subsequent to that being printed in the magazine, the rumor took on a life of its own. Ironically, back in the mid 50's Elvis was one of the few artists who refused to play to segregated crowds. A man who was a champion of racial integration was branded a racist by those whose culture and music he not only admired but wished nothing but equality.

Knowing Facts Regarding Presley's Life Make it Impossible to Believe the Unfounded Rumor

Upon researching facts and discovering the relationships and admiration that Elvis had for countless blacks throughout his life, one would find it impossible to characterize him as a racist and to buy into the absurd label. Presley was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi near the "colored section" in what was referred to back then as a "shotgun shack" that was built by his father. It was referred to as such because the house was so small that if one were to fire a shot through the front the bullet would come out the back. So poor were the Presleys that when Elvis was born, the $15 delivery fee was covered by the state.

As a kid, Presley was in awe of black gospel music and would regularly sit in the back of black churches near his neighborhood and take in the music and culture. Gospel music would have a huge impact on him throughout his life and career, leading to him being inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame (along with the Rock 'N' Roll and Country Hall of Fames, making him to this day the only artist to accomplish such a feat). Ironically, very early in Elvis' career he experienced racism of his own when according to Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, many of the white disk jockeys didn't want to play black music and the black disk jockeys didn't want to play music sung by a white artist. Many listeners were convinced that Elvis was black when one of the few white disk jockeys that played black music played his first hit song "That's All Right Mama".

White racists during that time were up in arms about the birth of a new genre of music derived from black culture that united the two races. Ironically, the man who was later rumored to be a racist was the one who had the greatest impact vis-a-vis opening the door for future black artists and this was corroborated by the very artists he assisted, many of whom he later befriended. Little Richard alluded to this when he said "he was an integrator, Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn't let black music through. He opened the door for black music." Another legendary black artist Isaac Hayes pointed to Elvis' seminality when he said "Elvis was a giant and influenced everyone in the business".

Throughout his life, Presley employed and befriended countless black people (both stars and non-entities) and was famous for handing out cadillacs to poor couples during Christmas, many of them black. Sammy Davis Jr. who endured racial oppression as a youth was a good friend of Presley's and had nothing but praise for Elvis whenever asked about the King. "I have a respect for Elvis and our friendship. Early on somebody told me that Elvis was black and I said 'no, he's white but he's down-home', that is what it's all about. Not being black or white it's being 'down-home' and which part of down-home you come from. On a scale of one to ten, I would rate Elvis an eleven".

During his legendary '68 Comeback Special, Presley unequivocally gave credit to Gospel and Blues for giving birth to Rock 'N' Roll music. He also closed out the show singing a song that he only performed live once called "If I Can Dream" that was written by Walter Earl Brown. The song was influenced by a conversation Elvis had with the show's producer Steve Binder two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Presley was very upset by King's death and Binder took things from their conversation to Brown who subsequently wrote the song based on Elvis' feelings about King's life and death. When Brown demonstrated the song to them, Presley's manager Colonel Tom Parker didn't feel that it was right for Elvis, but Elvis was determined to take a stab at it in the studio. Brown said when Elvis sang the song, he saw the three black back up singers with tears streaming down their cheeks. One of them whispered to him: "Elvis has never sung with so much emotion before. He means every word".

Elvis was unfairly accused of "stealing black music" because in addition to Rock N Roll being derivative of Rhythm and Blues, early on in his career he covered a few songs that were originally sung by black artists such as "Hound Dog" which was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton. Elvis was undoubtedly influenced by black artists before him (everyone has influences regardless of race) but to suggest that Elvis and other whites made no contribution to the genre of Rock N Roll or popular music in general is absurd. What many fail to mention is that "Hound Dog" and many other early songs recorded by black and later white artists like Elvis were written by two caucasian men named Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. In addition to that, the guitar, piano and modern drum kit were invented by white men. Writing songs and inventing instruments is hardly making no contribution. This was clearly a joint effort.

Elvis Performing "If I Can Dream"

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Chuck D Revived the Rumor in the 80's

In his 1989 song "Fight the Power", rapper Chuck D wrote in the lyrics "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant sh*t to me. Straight up racist, the sucker was. Simple and plain". Flavor Flav followed with, "Muthaf*ck him and John Wayne!" For kids in my generation who didn't grow up during Elvis' time and weren't directly fed the prevarications and racist label that was perpetrated on him back in the 50's, Chuck D's song and its implication served as a revelation to many younger blacks who proceeded to parrot the unfounded assertion without doing proper research which Chuck clearly didn't do himself. This led to the rumor being revived and handed down from Generation X to Generation Y and beyond.

Unfortunately, Chuck D's attempt to clarify what he meant in the lyrics by stating that he was alluding to Elvis being hailed as the "King" by whites without acknowledging the black artists who came before him failed to explain why then he wrote in so many words that he was a "straight up racist" and why he would be lumped in with John Wayne who truly made racist statements in his Playboy interview in 1971. How in the world would anyone interpret Chuck D's lyrics any differently than they did?

Rapper Chuck D
Rapper Chuck D | Source
Muhammad Ali in his prime.
Muhammad Ali in his prime. | Source

Presley's Friendship with Ali Served as More Proof of His Innocence

Very few people are or were aware of Elvis' close friendship with the great Muhammad Ali. They met in Las Vegas in 1973 four years before Presley's death and one year before Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title for a third time from George Foreman in an amazing, odds defying feat. During their friendship, Elvis even presented Ali with a custom white robe made for him that had one of Ali's monikers "People's Champion" written on the back decked out in rhinestones which Ali actually wore during his ring entrance for the first Ken Norton fight.

To understand the importance of Ali electing to share a close friendship with Presley and how that serves as further proof of Elvis lacking a racist bone in his body is to understand what Ali endured in his legendary life. Ali won the gold medal for the United States in 1960 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when segregation was alive and prevalant in the U.S. Even as an Olympic gold medalist, Ali was refused service at white only restaurants once being told "we don't serve negroes here" to which he sharply replied, "I don't eat them either". Ali went on to refuse to be drafted into the Vietnam War famously stating "I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me 'ni**er' ".

Like Presley, Ali grew up in the south in the late 40's and 50's and endured racism young blacks have to read about in books to understand. When Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam shortly after winning the heavyweight title for the first time in 1964, he was loathed by many whites and for a period of time wasn't a big fan of them either. Extremely outspoken and proud of his race, Ali said during interviews back in the 70's that he didn't believe in interracial relationships and appeared to have had a deep and frankly justifiable distrust for whites. He evolved and his anger and feeling towards whites had mitigated by the 80's but by that time Elvis was dead. If Ali even had an inkling of doubt as to whether Elvis might have been racist, do you think he would have carried on a close friendship with the man?

When asked about Presley and their friendship, Ali replied "Elvis was my close personal friend. He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. He told us he didn't want nobody to bother him. He wanted peace and quiet and I gave him a cabin in my camp and nobody even knew it. When the cameras started watching me train, he was up on the hill sleeping in the cabin. Elvis had a robe made for me. I don't admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you'd want to know." Enough said.

Finals Words About the King

As gifted and generous as Elvis was, he was human and thus, far from perfect. He undoubtedly failed at times to live up to his sweet, southern boy image. He was eccentric, shot out televisions and committed his share of adultry while married to his wife Priscilla. One can't fault him for that too much, however. As the great comedian Chris Rock once said, "men are only as faithful as their options". No one had more options than Elvis. Once when this author was a teenager, I was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Elvis on it. I approached a black homeless man who was begging for change. I handed him a dollar and as he took it he glanced at my shirt and said "I was never a huge fan of Elvis, but he did get the pus*y". That he did ladies and gentlemen.

Elvis was many things but one thing a person cannot and should not ever label him, however, is "racist". Having befriended, employed, greatly admired and given cadillacs to blacks throughout his life --- if Elvis Presley was a racist, there's no hope for anyone.

Sammy Davis Jr. in 1989
Sammy Davis Jr. in 1989 | Source


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