By: Lee Dawson / Elvis-Express.com
The media and certain modern music stars have stated that
Elvis Presley was a racist.
But, renowned civil rights photographer, Ernest Withers
disagrees with these unfounded comments.
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. Elvis & BB King in Memphis around
"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
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."
"I have heard reporters ask Elvis 'Why? Why do you say
'Yes, sir' to those stupid nig***s?' and Elvis would say to
them 'Cause they're humans 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
"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
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.
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 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 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 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. 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'.
"On a scale of one to ten, I would rate Elvis eleven".
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, and myself'.
James Brown then sings Love Me Tender. Was Elvis a racist? Nope.
ELVIS WAS NOT A RACIST
By Piers Beagley / Elvis Information Network
"I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. Last
time I saw Elvis alive was at Graceland. We sang ‘Old Blind
Barnabus’ together, a gospel song. I love him and hope to
see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul
brother." – James Brown.
"Elvis was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing.
They wouldn’t let Black music through.
He opened the door
for Black music." – Little Richard.
"On a scale of one to ten, I would rate Elvis
eleven." – Sammy Davis Jnr.
Introduction - Elvis Was Not A Racist!
Let's get two things straight from the start.
Firstly Elvis’ supposed 1957 "racist comment" that
is often bandied about has never been verified and seems
highly unlikely considering the timing, as well as Elvis'
deep involvement with the black music of the era. Elvis was
even was challenged about the statement by a reporter on the
set of Jailhouse Rock. Elvis said, "I never said anything
like that, and people who know me know that I wouldn’t have
Secondly the Chuck D quote (from Public Enemy’s
‘Fight The Power’) is again regularly used to denigrate
Elvis but is never fully explained. What Chuck D actually
says - should anyone bother to ask him or check the facts –
is that what he actually disliked was Elvis’
This is because it happened to play into the hands
of a racist music industry that, at the time, was hungry for
a white artist who could play black music. Chuck D in fact
agrees & says that, "Elvis was a door, a gateway through to
the roots. In the beginning of his career Elvis admitted
where the roots came from, but did anybody care?"
Saqmmy Davis jr
The Southern States - Some Background
Actually it should be more of a surprise that
Elvis did grow up with so little prejudice, after all the
Southern US States were still colour segregated into the
sixties. How easy to forget that it wasn’t until the
mid-sixties that The Civil Rights March and Martin Luther
King's "I Have a Dream" speech occurred. It is a sad
historical fact that even after The Beatles and the new
‘freedom of the sixties’ President Lyndon Johnson still had
to force the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress over
fierce opposition from Southern legislators. We have to
remember that this was the political atmosphere that Elvis
was living in.
Like all of us, Elvis would have been brought up
surrounded by family prejudices (Vernon was known to be very
anti-Semitic) but even these, according to Memphis Mafia
members, did not affect Elvis.
Lamar Fike says, "Elvis had a good heart and
fortunately was nowhere near his family in his beliefs. He
recognized that he met many people in those ethnic groups
that he liked and he was always respectful and courteous to
all people who were the same to him".
Another fact is that in 1960, even in the supposed
egalitarian atmosphere of a southern Democratic Convention,
Sammy Davis Jnr was booed not only because he was black but
also that he had dared become engaged to a white woman
(actress May Britt).
Sammy Davis was even asked by the Democrats to
postpone his marriage until after the election, which he
did. But even then he was snubbed & asked not to attend
Kennedy’s inauguration! Sammy Davis Jnr was a long-term
friend of Elvis’ and details like these help one understand
the political & racist pressure of the era even on
well-known celebrities – and this was from The Democrats.
Heaven forbid you consider the racist ideals of any other
"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." –
Sammy Davis Jnr.
Early Days - Beale Street & Sun Studio
However, more than anything, Elvis’ opinions and
beliefs would had to have been influenced by growing up in a
poor Southern community spending his early years absorbing
the music of local impoverished black communities like Shake
Rag in Tupelo and, later on, the Beale Street area of
Unlike most white teenagers Elvis would delight in
attending the coloured East Trigg Baptist Church where he
would hear Reverend Brewster’s stirring sermons along with
the local black gospel music. Elvis would even slip away
from his own First Assembly church meetings to be one of the
few whites attending the East Trigg services.
"Elvis loved gospel music. He was raised on it.
And he really did know what he was talking about. He was
singing Gospel all the time – almost anything he did had
that flavour. You can’t get away from what your roots are."
– Cissy Houston.
Elvis would later spend time in Beale Street, the
cultural capital of Memphis’ large black community,
absorbing the local blues and their styles. It was there in
1954 that Elvis saw Lowell Fulson at Club Handy performing
his brand new composition ‘Reconsider Baby’, a song that
Elvis would continue to perform throughout his career.
Walking down Beale Street Elvis would spend what money he
had on the exciting local fashions he saw in Lansky’s shop
front window. Wearing his favorite colors of pink & black
Elvis would even challenge his white neighbours by dressing
in the outlandish Beale Street styles.
In fact the key to Elvis' attraction was that he
was such a musical & cultural mixing pot that he had to
appeal to any innovative teenager.
"I knew Elvis before he was popular. He used to
come around and be around us a lot. I can remember once or
twice when we met down at Club Handy on Beale Street. Elvis
at heart was very religious and I think that throughout his
career he couldn’t help but let it come out & you can hear
it." – B.B King.
Early in Elvis’ recording career it was of course
his respect & understanding of local black music & culture
that made him & Sam Phillips such kindred spirits. Although
obviously rare for that era & the Southern States region,
both had beliefs in black culture & the equality of man. Sam
Phillips said, "The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis
Presley had to be one of the biggest things that could have
happened to us.
" Throughout the years Elvis always showed his
appreciation for his black musical roots. In his 1954 Sun
Studio’s ‘Million Dollar’ jam Elvis spoke about his
admiration of singer Jackie Wilson who Elvis believed had
outdone him with a better version of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. Elvis
latter acknowledged Wilson’s style & footwork when he filmed
‘Return To Sender’ for the film ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’.
When Jackie Wilson had a stroke in 1975 leaving
him unable to perform and hospitalized, Elvis covered a
large proportion of Wilson’s medical bills.
A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the
black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo
entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis." -
In 1956 Elvis appeared on the WDIA black radio
station’s annual fund-raiser for "needy Negro children" at
Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium. Elvis performed alongside some of
his own heroes, Ray Charles, B.B King & Rufus Thomas. 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 Elvis Presley."
"I remember Elvis as a young man hanging around
the Sun studios. Even then, I knew this kid had a tremendous
talent. He was a dynamic young boy. His phraseology, his way
of looking at a song, was as unique as Sinatra's. I was a
tremendous fan, and had Elvis lived, there would have been
no end to his inventiveness." - B.B. King
The Later Years - I Have A Dream / If I Can Dream
Elvis always expressed his respect to other
performers, for instance Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little
Richard, Mahalia Jackson & Junior Parker, who had influenced
his own music. Singer Roy Hamilton was another of Elvis'
idols. During the 1969 Memphis sessions Elvis was delighted
to meet Roy and they talked for a while. As a show of
appreciation Elvis presented Hamilton with a beautiful new
song ‘Angelica’ that he was going to record himself.
"Describe Elvis Presley? He was the greatest who ever was,
is, or will ever be." - Chuck Berry.
Another of Elvis’ friends James Brown is re-known
for having an incredibly strong personality, supporting the
struggle for Black Rights, and someone who wouldn't take any
racist bullshit off anyone he met.
Coincidentally James Brown was charting with ‘Say it Loud,
I'm Black & I'm Proud’ at the same time Elvis was recording
'In The Ghetto'. There would be no chance of James Brown
spending anytime with Elvis had he shown any racist
tendencies and they stayed friendly acquaintances throughout
James Brown was so moved by Elvis' death that he
requested, and was allowed, time alone with Elvis as he lay
in his coffin at Graceland. James Brown was also the first
entertainer to arrive at Elvis' funeral.
"We were friends for a long time, for twenty
years. And he told me, he’d ride around Memphis around the
streets he’d come up in, all alone at night. Ride around on
his motorcycle when he was sure the rest of the world was
asleep, just kind of hauntin’ them places he hung around in
as a kid. He was a country boy." – James Brown.
In today’s rap dominated popular culture it is too
easy to forget how much Elvis did to help with the cultural
integration of popular music. At the time Elvis started
there was a real rejection of black culture from post-war
White middle-America and from all sides of the white
community. Even the radio stations were segregated and Elvis
had to take a lot of criticism just for singing the music he
loved & grew up with.
"Elvis had an influence on everybody with his
musical approach. He broke the ice for all of us." – Al
In the seventies Elvis' personal choice of
insisting that The Sweet Inspirations became his backup
group once he went back to touring also says a lot.
In 2003 EIN interviewed Myrna Smith and asked her
about the tabloid slurs and comments about Elvis' supposed
EIN - Some people like to make out that Elvis was
racist in some ways. Is the story true that on a Texan Tour
the promoters didn't want Elvis working with black backing
singers and Elvis made the stand saying, "No Sweets, No
Myrna Smith -"That's what we heard. And the
promoter's daughter was made to drive us in an open
convertible to the stage! So that promoter never defied
Elvis again! In fact I don't think that we never worked with
him again anyway. I know that no matter what color I was
Elvis would have loved me the same. As far as he treated me,
there was not racial bone in his body. I mean in the early
days he even sneaked into those black gospel churches in
Memphis which would have taken a lot of nerve. White boys
just wouldn't go there, it was a brave thing to do but he
was just determined."
Considering this it is not surprising that Martin Luther
King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ was a favorite rhetorical speech
that Elvis had memorized and would often repeat over the
years. Elvis was extremely shocked when on April 4th 1968
Martin Luther King was assassinated in his own hometown. The
compassion Elvis felt would lead to the inspired performance
that Elvis used in his own ‘If I Can Dream’ as the closing
number of his ‘Comeback Special.’ The Colonel unwisely would
have preferred a Christmas song!
The black struggles following Martin Luther King’s
assassination created strong racial boundaries especially in
Memphis and the South. Politically and racially 1969 was a
very sensitive period. However Elvis had always felt
strongly about social injustice (as shown by his private
donations to charities) and there is no doubt that his
recording of ‘In The Ghetto’ was Elvis’ way of saying which
side he sympathized for.
"I have a respect for Elvis and my friendship. 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." – Sammy Davis Jnr.
A picture is worth a Thousand words
Even to the very end Elvis would record songs
reflecting his black roots for instance 'Hurt’ by Roy
Hamilton, ‘Shake A Hand’ by Faye Adams & ‘Pledging My Love’
by Johnny Ace.
"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." -
I strongly believe that if Elvis Presley was alive
today a contemporary album which looked back and
acknowledged his Gospel and Blues roots would be one of his
best & most impassioned releases in years - But one can only
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