Question of the Month: Elvis Presley and Racism
Q: When I was a child in the 1970s I used to hear that Elvis Presley said, "The only thing a Black woman can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." Elvis Presley lived off Black music. If it is true that he said that then it is a shame.
-- Ryan Duffett, Libertyville, Illinois
A: Sociologists define rumors as widely circulating stories with questionable accuracy. This is certainly the case with the story you mention. That rumor apparently started in the late 1950s, but it was alive in the 1960s and 1970s in many African American communities, including Mobile, Alabama, where I was reared. There are at least three variations of the rumor. One has Elvis Presley responding to the question of dating a Black woman; another version has him dismissing friendships with Black men, and finally, there is the version where he crudely belittles all Blacks. In all versions the wording is similar: "The only thing a Black woman/Black man/a Nigger can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." Although the rumor was widely held to be true -- and continues to be believed by some Presley detractors -- there is no factual basis to the rumor.
In 1957 Jet, a Black magazine, sent one of its reporters, Louie Robinson, to interview Presley (on the set of Jailhouse Rock) and Black entertainers who worked with him. "Tracing that rumored racial slur to its source was like running a gopher to earth," claimed the Jet writer. Some people claimed that Presley had said it in Boston, which Elvis had never visited. Some people said he had said it on Edward Murrow's show, though Elvis had never appeared on the show. Robinson meant to get to the truth. Presley told the reporter, "I never said anything like that, and people who know me know I wouldn't have said it."
After his investigation, Robinson concluded, "To Elvis people are people, regardless of race, color or creed." Black performers from the time who knew him reject the rumor. "I would never think that Elvis Presley was a racist," said Rhythm and Blues singer Darlene Love, who sang background for him as part of the Blossoms. Pianist Dudley Brooks said that Presley "faces everybody as a man." Dr. W.A. Zuber, an African American physician in Tupelo, Mississippi (where Presley was reared) recounted how Presley used to "go 'round to Negro sanctified meetings." This last comment gives insight into the persistence of the rumor.
Elvis not only attended "sanctified meetings" in African American churches -- where he was influenced by Gospel music and Slave Spirituals -- but he listened to and was shaped by Black "secular" music, especially the Blues. Presley regularly paid homage to his "Black roots" and claimed "he could never hope to equal the musical achievements of Fats Domino or the Inkspot's Bill Kenny," but this did not satisfy people who believed that Presley's status as a musical and cultural icon was due, in no small part, to his white skin. He was resented for "covering" the songs of Black singers -- and for getting the acclaim that was denied to African American performers.
There were many Black singers with seductive physical movements and sensual lyrics, but their dynamic sexuality was threatening to many White Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s. Presley took the swinging jump and the playful (sometimes mischievous) sexuality of rhythm and blues music into mainstream American living rooms. While talented Black entertainers labored in smaller venues -- sometimes in relative obscurity -- Presley became a wealthy and famous international star. So, some Blacks resented his success (and him), and this made a story about him using a racist remark believable. Many Whites in the 1950s, including celebrities, had used anti-Black rhetoric. It was easy to believe that Presley, the Mississippi-born, once-working class, former truck driver had ungratefully lambasted Blacks. There is no evidence that it happened. Moreover, there is evidence that Presley donated money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights organizations; he publicly lauded Black musicians; and, treated the Blacks he encountered with respect.
March 2006 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum