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Elvis Presley, quiet crusader

Throughout his long career, Elvis Presley's manager advised him to steer clear of any political or controversial subjects when being interviewed. In fact, Presley became the master of the non-interview, using charm, humour and self-deprecation to avoid tricky subjects, a talent later picked-up on by Dylan and The Beatles.

As such, Presley was never able to publicly voice his thoughts on the issues of the day (the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, etc) but by examining the comments of his closest associates and carefully combing through newspaper archives, a picture emerges of a compassionate and intelligent man.

His private life was peppered with examples of his passion for equality among the races. When questioned about his influences, Elvis was always insistent that he'd learned from the likes of Fats Domino and Roy Hamilton, using the glare of his fame to shine a light on those he admired, regardless of race.

Also, when touring in Texas during the 1970s, his backing singers (the all-black all-female Sweet Inspirations) were refused admission to a hotel: Presley left the hotel owner in no doubt as to his feelings ("If you don't take my girls, you don't take me").

To give another example, this little-known photograph was snapped at the Juneteenth celebration in his home town of Memphis in the summer of 1956. Elvis was the biggest star on the planet at that time and chose to attend the black-only event in the most racially sensitive city in America. In this picture, he's playing one of the throw-a-baseball-and-win-a-prize games and being watched by a huge crowd. Elvis sought no publicity for this, nor was it reported in many newspapers.

By bringing together black and white influences in his music, and by promoting black singers and black culture whenever possible, Presley accelerated the civil rights movement and left the speech-making to men more qualified, men whom he deeply admired and respected.

[Photograph taken by Bob WIlliams, Juneteenth information originally from Robin Markowitz and Dr John Carpenter.]

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