Elvis Presley Wasn't a Racist, but He Wasn't a Civil Rights Hero Either

Elvis Presley was one of the first big acts in rock n' roll, but he was also from the South, which has led some to wonder if he was racist.


Sep. 2 2020, Updated 11:11 a.m. ET

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There are few bigger names in the history of rock and roll than Elvis Presley. The singer first made it big in the 1950s, and remained a popular act in music for more than a decade. His music took a lot from the blues music that came before it, which was created primarily by Black people. Given how he succeeded, many have wondered exactly what Elvis said about race. 

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Was Elvis Presley a racist?

For his time, Elvis was actually fairly progressive on race. Although he co-opted a lot of Black music in order to foment his own success, he also broke down some barriers with regard to race, and seemed to believe that people were just people. According to The New York Times, Elvis credited the Black musicians that came before as a key part of his success, and he also took steps to enter Black spaces. 

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In Memphis, he was hailed by two Black newspapers as a "race man" in large part because he seemed indifferent to the laws and social norms that separated Black people from white people at the time. In 1956, he attended the Memphis Fairgrounds on a night that was considered to be "colored night." He also attended the WDIA Goodwill Revue, which was hosted by a radio station primarily targeted at Black people. 

Elvis Presley was rumored to have made disparaging comments about Black people.

In spite of these gestures toward integration, a rumor persisted suggesting that Elvis had said “the only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” The rumor was untrue, but persisted nonetheless, to the point where Elvis felt the need to address it in an interview with Jet Magazine

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In the interview, Elvis said that anyone who knew him knew that he would never have said that. The interview was strengthened by testimonials from Black people who did know him, and also by the singer's acknowledgment that he was part of a musical continuum that included Black artists. 

"Let’s face it,” Elvis said, “nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.” 

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Elvis is still seen by many as a racist.

In spite of his acknowledgments of his influences and his apparent lack of personal prejudice, the public perception that Elvis was a racist persists. That may be in part because he was considered the "king of rock n' roll" in spite of the many Black musicians who came before him. Elvis popularized music that was first created by the Black community, and there's a feeling that his success was a form of theft. 

To his credit, Elvis often rejected the title of "king," again citing his many influences. His argument was that no one should be called king, but of course, that didn't stop him from being perceived that way. So, Elvis was seen as a racist in spite of his personal actions. 

He may have been kind to Black people, but he wasn't a huge advocate for civil rights. Elvis was just trying to make music, and his success hurt the legacies of Black musicians more than he may have intended.

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