|ELVIS WAS NO RACIST
By Lee Dawson
This has been an updated version of an article written for E.E.R a few years ago. This new adapted version has used various work by David Troedson of the
official Elvis Australian website. Read Elvis Australia’s comprehensive article on the subject’.Elvis Presley and Racism : The Ultimate, Definitive Guide
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The media and certain modern music stars have stated that Elvis Presley was a racist.
But, renowned civil rights photographer, Ernest Withers couldn't disagree more with these
At 83 years old, Ernest Withers has seen it all and as a professional photographer during 1950's
Memphis, he saw his fair share of racial tension and bigots, but he actually met Elvis and this is how
he remembers him.
One of Withers photos, show Elvis & B.B. King together in Memphis around 1956. "Elvis had this
thing for music, you see, especially gospel and R&B. As Withers puts it: "He began to show up at
musical events where I happened to be."
In 1950's Memphis, there were very few white people who would have ever have considered going
to these places. But Elvis loved to pay a visit East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church where Rev. W.
Herbert Brewster, who was a renowned gospel composer, produced a show which was broadcast by
WHBQ on Sunday nights.
At a recent lecture Ernest told the crowd that he was a big fan of R&B and on the subject of Elvis he
said "He was a mild tempered, quiet, nice guy. He treated everyone the same. There have been
rumors about him, saying that he said 'The only thing blacks can do for me is shine my shoes.' Now,
I don't believe that. I never saw him act in anyway like that."
Ernest also commented on Elvis' sincere politeness to people he would meet. "I saw and heard him
addressed everyone as 'Sir' and 'Maam', the people in the hardware store or someone like me,
whoever." Ernest also recalled how the media felt about the way Elvis treated coloured people with
respect..."I had heard reporters in the 1950's ask Elvis 'Why? Why do you say 'Yes, sir' to those
stupid nig***s?' and Elvis would say to them 'Cause they're human beings too.' He just was
respectful to all people, and not just because they were older than him, cause that's what you're
supposed to do. He had respect for anyone and everyone who deserved respect".
"I could relate and talk to Elvis easier than even the Civil Rights activists because I was his age and he was more even tempered. Elvis would come to the
black events and the Goodwill Review, but officially, he was not able to actually be part of it because of the segregation laws and things at the time. He would
still come though."
This was during a time when the established order was unconcerned if a white man was dismissive of a black man, but the civil rights photographer was
impressed with young Elvis and remembers him with great fondness.
Withers saw something totally different in Elvis to other white people in Memphis at that time. "Elvis was very fond of Walter Culpepper who ran a barbecue
shop on Hernando Street." Elvis always referred to the black proprietor as "Mr. Culpepper."
Withers says, "I overheard one of Elvis' friends at the time ask Elvis 'Why do you call him 'mister' -- he's just a barbecue guy?' Elvis looked at him and said
'He's a man."
"That," Withers says, "Was the humility in his temperament." One
classic Withers picture was taken at a march for Martin Luther King
a few days after he had been killed in 1968. These people were
marching in front of a movie theater that, just ironically, was playing
"Stay Away Joe" and said Elvis Presley in big letters above it.
"Elvis was a great man and did more for civil rights than people
know. To call him a racist is an insult to us all."
In 1956 Elvis appeared on the WDIA black radio station’s annual
fund-raiser for "needy Negro children" at Memphis’ Ellis
Elvis performed alongside some of his own heroes, Ray Charles,
B.B King & Rufus Thomas (pictured below).
out the slur when needing a headline, so there are those that believe Elvis was racist. Yes, we know that the notion that Elvis was a racist is preposterous. It's
as stupid now as it was then, but here is our definitive response to this nonsense.
When the 'establishment' accused Elvis Presley of being vulgar, of being deliberately sexual, they did not mean this. This was the cover for what was really
meant, what was really feared, and that was that Elvis would lead to equal rights and racial integration.
And not just Elvis, any white person singing rock 'n' roll. Carl Perkins was warned to not do his show. Elvis was simply the number one guy and therefore got
the most attention.
Following his 'Milton Berle' show, Elvis was savaged by critics who described his leg-shaking, hip-swiveling performance as 'noxious' and his singing as
'caterwauling'. Often the criticism had a racist edge, since Elvis was singing what was considered 'black music'. One critic summed up his performance as 'the
kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos'.
A Catholic weekly publication ran its criticism under the banner, 'Beware of Elvis Presley'. Ilva Price, an African American now living in West Memphis, TN,
recalled how her father, angry about rumors (later found by 'Jet' magazine to be fabricated), that Elvis had stolen 'their' music and was a racist, quickly turned
off the radio when he noticed her daughter's reaction to his voice, then called him a 'cracker', a racial epithet as disgusting as any other ... : Boston Globe
Interview by Renee Graham, published on August 11, 2002.
Sammy Davis Jr : 'I have a respect for Elvis and my friendship with him. It ain't my business what he did in private. The only thing I want to know is, 'Was he
my friend?', 'Did I enjoy him as a performer?', 'Did he give the world of entertainment something?' - and the answer is YES on all accounts. The other jazz just
don't matter'. 'Early on somebody told me that Elvis was black. And I said 'No, he's white but he's down-home'. And 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'.
The King of Rock was also well loved by the King of the Ring; "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 us. 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." - Muhammad Ali.
Shortly after Elvis died, James Brown recorded Love Me Tender as the b-side of
his hit record The Spank.
Brown did this touching spoken intro: 'I want to talk about a good friend I had for a
long time and a man I still love, Brother Elvis Presley. You know, if he were here right
now, I'm sure he would say the same thing for me. I loved the man and he was truly
the king of rock and roll. We've always had kind of a toss up. Elvis and I. The King of
Rock And Roll and I'm the King of Soul. So I wanted to say this for the people, Elvis,
James Brown then sings Love Me Tender. Was Elvis a racist? Hell No!.
There was no doubt that Elvis was seen as a champion in the black Memphis community &
his concert audiences were certainly not all white as is often believed.
The Pittsburgh Courier described the reaction that night as, "A thousand black, brown
and beige teen-age girls in the audience blended their alto & soprano voices in one wild
crescendo of sound that rent the rafters... and took off like scalded cats in the direction of
In 1957, a magazine printed a lie about Elvis, not the first one, not the last one, but one
that has been often passed on through the years and at times artists of today like to throw