Book 1, Birth of Rock Chapter 5, Lesson 2: Elvis and Race in 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.