Was Elvis a Racist?

The Elvis statue on Beale is covered in a light veil of snow. Photo by Brent Wheeler, © 2008

For several decades a rumor has persisted that Elvis Presley once said, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." The very fact that the rumor has persisted for so long is, for some people, proof of the accuracy of the claim. Nevertheless, it has been concluded that Elvis almost certainly never made such a statement.

According to multiple sources, this quote was published in 1957 in a Sepia magazine article, which said that it was rumored Elvis made this statement either at an appearance in Boston or during a appearance on the television program "Person To Person". However, at that time, Elvis had neither been to Boston nor appeared on that TV show.

Later in 1957, JET Magazine published an article on "The Truth About That Elvis Presley Rumor" and interviewed Elvis himself, who denied it, and according to this Daily Beast article said, " 'I never said anything like that,” Elvis said at the time. “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.'”

Not only had the first time the rumor ever appeared in print, it was cited as a rumor, but the circumstances around the rumor were proven to be untrue. In addition, many Black friends and associates of Elvis came to the singer's defense, maintaining that he never would have made such a remark.

On the other hand, discrediting a single remark does not accurately explain Elvis Presley and his success through the lens race, racism, or cultural and racial appropriation. It's well documented that rock music was a product of Southern genres of music developed by Black musicians - blues, bluegrass, gospel, and more. It's also well documented that Elvis spent his childhood immersed in the Black community, both in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, and in Memphis, Tennessee. 

That this new genre only exploded as the quintessential American genre only after white artists like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were able to record and market their music is a testimony to the system of racial inequality that existed in the U.S. in the 1950s and persists today.

For an in-depth examination of the racism rumor and why it is, in all probability, false, visit these resources:

For an in-depth examination on the racism inherent in American music history, this article provides perspective. 

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