Fifties and sixties rock & roll great Elvis Presley (pictured) became a cultural icon with his records and films. And a major part of his success came from his singing style, which was inarguably rooted in the African-American musical tradition. Yet, could a man who achieved such unprecedented success by co-opting the Black man’s music, be a bigot at his core? Could the hydromatic-hipped, free-spirited, rebellious Elvis truly ever utter the vile words, “The only thing Negroes could do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes?”
Even though Elvis was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Miss., where segregation reigned supreme, and grew up attending a “Whites-only” school, he reportedly managed to steer clear of political issues and causes and concentrated solely on his art.
Watch Presley perform “Return to Sender” here:
Throughout his musical career, despite his radical public persona, Elvis was described as being shy, humble, religious, respectful, and polite. But in 1957, at the height of his career, it came out that Elvis allegedly put down Blacks, saying that the only use he had for them was as servants and consumers of his music.
The alleged statement was supposedly made in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow‘s “Person to Person” TV show.
The problem was, though, that Elvis had never reportedly visited Boston nor had he appeared on the TV show. In addition, those who knew him could not take the rumor seriously because the drummed up so-called urban legend was the total opposite of all that Elvis seemed to stand for.
During the ’50s and ’60s, Blacks were among Elvis’ biggest fans, because many recognized the love he had for gospel, soul, and R&B music. Elvis also seemed to show his appreciation to those Black musicians who influenced him.
When Elvis was interviewed by Jet Magazine’s Louie Robinson, a reporter who was dispatched to cover the conspiracy theory which had picked up steam and was causing quite a stir, Elvis was on the set of his famed 1957 musical drama “Jailhouse Rock.”
Watch Presley perform “Jailhouse Rock” here:
Responding to Robinson’s question about the affront, Elvis, who at the time was 22 years old, said, “I never said anything like that and people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”
An associate of Elvis’ also went on the record to reply to the conspiracy theory, saying it was just a consequence of Elvis being so successful coupled with his birthplace, which was chock-full of bigots at the time, “People will always try to start something like that about a celebrity. It’s a stupid rumor. To Elvis, people are people, regardless of race, color, or creed.”
At the time, Rev. Milton Perry, an African-American minister from Jersey City, N.J., spoke with a number of Black and White Memphians about the conspiracy theory and he concluded that “an overwhelming majority of people who know him speak of this boy as a boy who practices humility and a love for racial harmony. I learned that he is not too proud or important to speak to anyone and to spend time with his fans of whatever color, whenever and wherever they approach him.”
Robinson ultimately concluded that no proof existed that Elvis had ever made the alleged racial statement anywhere. Thus, JET magazine, highly revered among Blacks in 1957, not only cleared Elvis of allegedly uttering the bigoted comment, but also depicted him as a young White man who was pro-racial equality both privately and professionally.
Elvis probably thought he had finally found some semblance of peace after Jet had laid the nasty rumor about him to rest, but he was wrong.
Decades after Elvis passed away on August 16, 1977, the rumor would continue to live on as a conspiracy theory. The idea of Elvis’ racism unfortunately did not get buried with the megastar.