Elvis Presley and Civil Rights …
The Role of Rock 'n' Roll

Elvis Presley never thought he was a player in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. In fact, in 1957 he was accused of being part of the problem.

On August 17, 1957, an article in JET magazine cleared Elvis Presley of the charge that he had made a racially insensitive statement about African-Americans. When he left Memphis for his Pacific Northwest tour 11 days later, Elvis probably felt he had laid to rest the notion that he was a racist.

He certainly didn’t think it would be a concern in the Pacific Northwest, where the black population percentage was among the lowest in the country. In the Northwest, Elvis played to no segregated crowds, as he had done in many areas of the South in 1956.

Of course, in the region where Elvis grew up and made his home, segregation was still the order of the day. Presley himself graduated from a whites-only high school in Memphis, and when he played the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo in 1956 and 1957, the fair maintained a “Negro section” where black displays and competitions could be separated from the white areas. The schools that Elvis once attended in Tupelo would not be integrated until 1965.

Vancouver, B.C., press conference, Aug. 31, 1957. Red Robinson on right.

It shouldn’t be assumed, however, that the Pacific Northwest was free of racism in 1957. It was there, just not as openly as in the South. One medium in which it was least transparent was radio. In Vancouver, B.C., legendary DJ Red Robinson remembers it well.

“There was a hell of a lot of bigotry here, which a lot of smug Canadians won’t tell you about,” says Robinson. “I took a lot of abuse over it myself.” Robinson drew white ire when he began playing “race records” on the air in the mid-fifties. At that time radio station play lists were segregated; white pop music was played on most major stations, while Negro music was aired on smaller stations aimed at a black audience.

• “Race Records” available under the counter

As black rhythm and blues music became more popular with white teenagers, Robinson began playing so-called “race records” on his teen-centered radio show. To even get the records, Robinson had to visit local record stores and go through a backroom process.

In an interview for Tom Cohen’s Associated Press article in 2000, Red recalled how records were segregated then. “You’d go in to buy it and honest to God they’d put it in a brown sack, and under the counter. You had to know what to ask for. It was like pornography.”

As he mixed the records of such black artists as Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter, and The Drifters, with the traditional white sounds of Pat Boone, Guy Mitchell and the Four Aces, Robinson began to feel some heat. “I had phone calls,” he told Cohen, “and I’m going to use their words. ‘Nigger lover.’ ‘Why are you playing that devil’s music?’ It was no joke. I mean, I was a kid and it scared the hell out of me.”

Not only did Robinson survive, he and others like him thrived. Most adult listeners had left radio for the new medium of television, leaving teenagers as the dominant radio audience. By 1958 teenagers were buying 75 per cent of all records. To draw advertising dollars and profits, station owners had no choice but to support DJs who produced high ratings. In the mid-fifties they were the ones most tuned into rock ’n’ roll music, as recorded by both white and black singers and groups. Without realizing it, these DJs were in the front lines of the battle for civil rights.

• Presley named white pop singers as favorites

Wherever Elvis performed in 1957, these rock ’n’ roll disk jockeys were honored guests at their city’s Presley press conference. One thing Elvis was asked to do at each stop on the tour was to list his own favorite singers. His responses surprisingly revealed a personal preference for white, popular music.

In Toronto he named Joanie James, Dean Martin and Pat Boone. (Sinatra? “I can take him or leave him.”) In Spokane he added The Four Aces, The Four Lads and Tommy Sands to his list of favorites. In Vancouver, B.C., Presley singled out Boone, calling him, “undoubtedly the finest voice, out and out, especially on slow songs.” Asked he favorite female artists, Elvis mentioned Patti Page and Kay Starr.

The next day in Tacoma, Presley mentioned Ricky Nelson and Tommy Sands as his favorite new singers. At the Portland press conference, Presley renamed Martin, Boone, and the Aces, and added Nat King Cole as a personal favorite. Before his controversial October show at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, Elvis again expressed admiration for Boone, Martin and Sands. That evening in his hotel suite, he spent a half hour talking music with Ricky Nelson.

It’s ironic that Elvis, whose career self-admittedly was based on rhythm and blues, nevertheless had a personal taste for the smooth style of the ballad singers who dominated the pop charts before he and his ilk came along to displace them. Even when Elvis was asked specifically his opinion of R&B singer/rocker Little Richard, he was non-committal. “I’ll say there’s no one in the world as long-winded as he,” Elvis told the assembled crowd at a press conference in Portland.

Despite Presley’s apparent personal preference for listening to white pop music in 1957, the disc jockeys playing his records then saw a direct connection between what Elvis was doing, the emergence of “race records” from behind the counter, and the civil rights movement.

In addition to buying and playing black R&B records in the mid-fifties, Red Robinson was also driving across the border to Seattle to buy Presley’s releases on the Sun label in 1955. An avowed Presley fan, then and now, Robinson today bristles at the allegation that Elvis was racist.

• Red Robinson defends Elvis

“Take a look at the things that are only publicized now, of how he’d be driving down the street and see a destitute black woman with a little child. He went and bought her a Cadillac. Now if this guy hated blacks, he wouldn’t even have gone near them. There’s a lot of twisted bullshit about that. In my conversation with him backstage [in 1957], we talked about a guy named Roy Hamilton. He was one of his favorite singers, and one of mine. Go back to 1956 when Elvis played at the New Frontier in Las Vegas … he would go over to see Jackie Wilson. He’d go over and see all the black acts. He’d go see Frankie Lymon. I have interview outtakes of Elvis where’s he’s raving about Clyde McPhatter. I don’t know who’s trying to do a [racist] number on Elvis, but that’s bullshit!”

There are even some in the music industry who today credit Presley with giving impetus to the civil rights movement, the opening salvos of which were being fired during the same period that Elvis was exploding into fame. Certainly he can’t be portrayed as a leader of that great movement in American history. Presley saw himself first and foremost as an entertainer, and he lacked the passion to stand up publicly for political causes. He may have thought the segregated entertainment venues in the South of 1956 were wrong, but as an entertainer he played them and never spoke out for change.

An episode that helps illuminate Presley’s roll in civil rights occurred just days after he finished his 1957 Labor Day weekend tour of the Pacific Northwest. Nine black teenagers attempted to start the school year at previously white-only Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In what would become one of the seminal acts of the Civil Rights Movement, Governor Orval Faubus defied a federal court desegregation ruling and ordered state National Guard units to prevent the blacks from entering the school. For several weeks developments in the confrontation were front page news in Northwest newspapers, as they were across the country.

There is no evidence that Elvis ever publicly commented on the issue, but the thousands of Northwest teenagers, who had just days before reveled over Presley on stage, were now starting a new school year themselves. They were forced to judge the situation in Little Rock in the context of their own lives.

In October 1957, just a month after Elvis finished his tour there, a rock ’n’ roll touring show came to the Pacific Northwest. It included black performers Fats Domino, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry, and The Drifters. They shared the same stage and billing with white performers, such as The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Paul Anka, Buddy Knox, and Eddie Cochran. The show must have validated what the overwhelmingly white teenage population already intuitively felt—that the segregated policies existing in the South were wrong. As teenagers throughout the country grew into adulthood, many threw their political power behind the movement that ultimately brought about the civil rights legislation of the mid-sixties.

• Elvis's role in the civil rights movement

There are those who claim that Elvis had a vital role in preparing those teenagers, and millions of others across the country, not only to understand the inequity of the Little Rock situation in particular, but also to come to grips with the entire spectrum of civil rights. In a 2004 issue of Rolling Stone, singer Bono explained the political effect of the non-political Elvis Presley.

“I recently met with Coretta Scott King, John Lewis and some of the other leaders of the American civil rights movement, and they reminded me of the cultural apartheid rock & roll was up against. I think the hill they climbed would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival were all introduced to the blues through Elvis. He was already doing what the civil rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don’t think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world.”

Presley biographer Peter Guralnick also believes that in the 1950s Presley was one of the pillars of the burgeoning civil rights movement. “If you listen to the music,” Guralnick said during a 1994 interview in the Seattle Times, “you can hear Elvis’s love for not simply the blues, but also the whole range of African-American culture. Jackie Robinson, Elvis Presley and the legislative triumphs from Brown v. the Board of Education on helped change the fabric of American life. Elvis’s music had as much to do with the integration of American life as any non-legal remedies.”

If Presley was a player in the civil rights movement, it certainly wasn’t intentional. In interviews throughout his life he declined to comment on social issues, explaining he was just an entertainer who preferred keeping his political opinions to himself.

In his 1995 book, Lamar Fike, who was close to Elvis from 1957 through the end of the singer’s life, confirmed that Presley stayed clear of broad social movements. “I think Elvis didn’t like to see any kind of injustice,” Fike explained, “but if it didn’t directly affect him, he was a little bit indifferent. And in that sense, he wasn’t the big humanitarian people make him out to be. He cared more about helping individuals than helping masses of people or a cause.”

There is no doubt that Elvis Presley’s ability to influence American culture diminished after 1957. Emerging from the army in 1960, he no longer served as a force for cultural diversity in America. While he concentrated on a Hollywood career for a decade, his live performances ended and his recordings entered the mainstream. But there is also no doubt that, at least in the area of popular music, Elvis passed on a lasting legacy to the 1960s.

• Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix

An example of that occurred when Presley performed in Seattle in 1957. That year Seattle race relations were in flux, moving forward in some ways, falling back in others. The year before Elvis arrived, Seattle’s two black and white musician unions were integrated into one as the black rhythm and blues sound blended with white pop.

The city’s education system, however, was taking a step toward de facto segregation. When the school year began in September 1957, just days after Elvis left town, Garfield High School became the first city public secondary school with a more than 50 per cent nonwhite student body.

On September 1, 1957, however, one of those Garfield students made a connection with Elvis Presley. That evening in Sicks’ Seattle Stadium, the black rhythm and blues music that inspired Elvis was passed through him to a young African-American who would carry rock’s banner through the following decade.

Fourteen-year-old Jimi Hendrix could not afford to buy a ticket, so with others he watched Elvis perform from a hill overlooking Sicks’ Stadium on the east side. Though he could barely see Elvis, Hendrix saw the excitement as the 16,000 in the stadium reacted to Presley taking the stage. He heard Elvis sing his hit songs, and as the singer launched into his “Hound Dog” finale, Hendrix clapped his hands and stomped his feet on the hillside.

As Presley exited the stadium in the backseat of a white Cadillac, Jimi got his closest look at the rock ’n’ roll star as the car drove by on the street below him. Two months after the concert, Hendrix acknowledged the effect it had on him by drawing a picture of Elvis in his notebook. Around the image of the guitar-playing Presley, Jimi wrote the titles of a dozen of the singer’s hit records.

In 1970 Jimi Hendrix, by then arguably the world’s most famous guitar player, performed in concert at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium, just as Elvis had done thirteen years earlier. By the time he died of a drug overdose later that year, however, Sicks’ Stadium had been torn down. Still, the two-hundred-car funeral procession that accompanied Hendrix to Greenwood Memorial Cemetery in Renton, south of Seattle, passed by the former stadium site where both he and Presley had performed. It was a sad but vivid reminder of the fluidity of American rock music as it passed through giants from one generation to the next. — Alan Hanson

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"He was already doing what the civil rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don’t think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world."