A few years ago on some live VH1 show, Mary J. Blige sang the Carl Perkins song that Elvis made famous: “Blue Suede Shoes.” Afterward, she felt compelled to apologize to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I prayed about it because I know Elvis was a racist. But that was just a song VH1 asked me to sing. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t wear an Elvis flag. I didn’t represent Elvis that day. I was just doing my job like everybody else.”
Some arguments never die. A 1957 magazine article (aimed at black readers) began this way:
As one of the most-debated subjects in the land, Elvis Presley arouses white-heat discussion everywhere. But among Negroes, the controversy over Elvis is even more explosive than among whites. Colored opinion about the hydromatic-hipped hillbilly from Mississippi runs the gamut from caustic condemnation to ardent admiration.
Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, home town of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jon Rankin. Others believe a rumored crack by Elvis during a Boston appearance in which he is alleged to have said: “The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.”
According to Peter Guralnick, in today’s New York Times, there was no Boston appearance and Elvis said no such thing.
So why didn’t the rumor die? Why did it continue to find common acceptance up to, and past, the point that Chuck D of Public Enemy could declare in 1990, “Elvis was a hero to most . . . straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain”?
Chuck D has long since repudiated that view for a more nuanced one of cultural history, but the reason for the rumor’s durability, the unassailable logic behind its common acceptance within the black community rests quite simply on the social inequities that have persisted to this day, the fact that we live in a society that is no more perfectly democratic today than it was 50 years ago. As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context, for Elvis to be hailed as “king,” if Elvis’s enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration?