ELVIS AND RACE IN 1950S AMERICA
How did Elvis Presley’s early career reflect race relations and racial tensions in mid-1950s America?
At the end of World War II, the United States sat poised on the brink of a Civil Rights movement that would challenge the nation’s inherent racial inequality and push for the integration of the races throughout American society. The second-class status of African Americans was a fact of life throughout the country, but particularly palpable in the Jim Crow South, where segregation prevented African Americans from voting, attending certain schools, sitting alongside whites on public transportation and even drinking from the same water fountains as whites.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that state-sponsored segregation in America’s public schools was inherently unconstitutional. Though the decision marked a critical turning point in race relations, it would be many years before its promise of dismantling the machinery of segregation and ensuring full enfranchisement of minorities would begin to bear fruit.
Two months after the Brown ruling, 19-year-old Elvis Presley released his first single on Sun Records. The first side was a cover of “That’s All Right,” a 1940s Rhythm and Blues song written and originally recorded by African-American Bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. The “B” side of the single was a cover of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a 1946 tune written and popularized by Bluegrass musician Bill Monroe.
The single showed that black and white music could live side by side on a 45 RPM slice of vinyl in 1954, even if the men who wrote the songs often could not in public life. In some ways, Elvis’ first single did what the Supreme Court could only dream of doing at that moment, integrating black and white culture in one neat package that would have enormous influence on millions of Americans.
On the other hand, the fact that this melding of black and white culture was delivered through the voice of a white teenager demonstrates the racial realities of the mid-1950s. White audiences may have been ready for African-American-inspired Rock and Roll, but not necessarily to embrace music actually performed by African-American artists. Indeed, Sam Phillips, who produced Elvis’ first single, is said to have commented, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” When radio audiences responded enthusiastically to the first airing of Presley's “That’s All Right,” Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips went out of his way to let listeners know that Elvis was white.
In this lesson, students will investigate how Elvis’ first single offers a window onto the complex race relations of 1954, and how it fits into the broader narrative of Brown v. Board of Education and the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement.
Video pages: American Segregation (1954) | Elvis Presley - Blue Moon of Kentucky (1954) | Bill Monroe - Blue Moon of Kentucky (1946) | Dewey Phillips - Red, Hot and Blue (1952) | Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup - That's All Right (1947) | Elvis Presley - That's All Right (1954)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
Play the video clip "American Segregation," an excerpt from the 1987 PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, which examines the state of race relations in the United States in 1954, on the eve of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Discuss:
1. Display the map of Tupelo, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the city where he attended high school.
2. Ask students what kind of music they imagine someone growing up in those places in the late 1940s and early 1950s might have listened to. Explain that you will play two examples for them.
5. Distribute Handout 1: Sun Records and Race Records. Ask for volunteers to read it aloud, one student per paragraph. Instruct all students to underline key words and phrases as they listen and follow.
6. Display the picture of Elvis’s first single, released in 1954.
7. Play the excerpt from Elvis’ recording of “That’s All Right” and discuss:
8. Play the video clip of Dewey Phillips, "Red Hot and Blue," explaining to the class that Phillips was a highly popular disc jockey in Memphis who was known for his extroverted style and who played records by both black and white artists at a time when most radio shows catered specifically to either a black audience or a white one. Distribute Handout 2: "That’s All Right" on Memphis Radio, July 1954. Ask for a volunteer to read it aloud. All students should underline key words and phrases as they listen and follow. Discuss:
9. Play the excerpt of Elvis’ recording of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and discuss:
10. Why do you think Elvis put these two particular songs on the same record? Does the appearance of these two songs on the same record in any way reflect what was happening in the United States in 1954, particularly in terms of race relations? If so, how?
1. Explain to students that while the audience reaction to Elvis’ first single was largely very positive, many people, particularly in positions of authority, were angered by Elvis and his music. Display the two quotes below:
"The big show was provided by Vancouver teenagers, transformed into writhing, frenzied idiots of delight by the savage jungle beat music."
-- Review of an Elvis Presley concert in The Vancouver Sun, September 3, 1957
"When our schools and centers stoop to such things as ‘rock and roll’ tribal rhythms, they are failing seriously in their duty."
-- Letter from Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, banning Catholic school students from attending Presley concert, Feb. 28, 1957
2. What do you think the authors meant by the terms:
3. Why might these authors have used these terms to describe Presley’s music? What do they seem to fear about Presley?
4. Where were these comments made? What conclusions can you draw about racial tension in the mid-1950s in other parts of North America besides the South?
5. Ask students to think back to the video from Eyes on the Prize at the beginning of the lesson, and discuss:
Write a short response in reaction to the class discussion. Take a position in answering the questions below, or use one of the questions posed in class, citing evidence from the texts and videos in your analysis.
1. Have students read Robert Palmer's 1978 article "Sam Phillips: The Sun King" and write a short paper of several paragraphs explaining who Phillips was and what he accomplished at Sun Records. Among the points they should address: What made Sun Records important? Why was Phillips uniquely in a position to "discover" Elvis Presley?
2. Have students read the chapter essay Elvis: Hillbilly Becomes Country, Rockabilly Becomes Rock and Roll written by Colin Escott. Write a short paper of several paragraphs explaining how Elvis redefined pop music with his recordings at Sun Records. Describe the birth of Rock and Roll; how did it challenge the conformity of 1950s America?
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
Core Music Standard: Responding
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.