The other day, I mentioned that there was a semi-serious post floating in my brain. Today, I am going to get it out of there. A couple of weeks ago The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, printed an article about an activist who was going to be speaking in the area.
In the article, readers learned that the activist had a great deal of respect for Dolly Parton because of the singer’s work to improve the lives of children and others. They also learned that she had no respect for Elvis Presley, who she saw as someone who could have done more for his times and his community.
That’s fine. We all have opinions about what people should and should not be doing. Many feel that the famous have a responsibility of using that fame for the betterment of the world. Dolly does a lot, and Elvis probably didn’t do enough. However, the writer continued with her disdain for Elvis by saying that he was racist. Her proof was that he had once said, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
When I read it, something in the back of my mind said that it wasn’t right. I couldn’t explain what was nagging at me, but I just didn’t think that was an accurate quote. That’s when I hit Google and was directed to Snopes. According the them, Elvis never made that statement and referenced Michael Bertrand as the historian who discovered where this urban legend began.
That’s when I knew where that nagging feeling was coming from. Dr. Bertrand teaches at Tennessee State University and spoke to the History Club at our university. He and I had a great conversation about the early years of Rock n’ Roll, but this information came from his presentation to the group. He tracked the origin of this tale to a magazine article in which an anonymous person on the street said that someone told them that Elvis had said that. Through the years, many people have heard it and taken it as fact.
Why am I writing about a long dead singer being misquoted in a newspaper? Because the newspaper and the activist being interviewed should know better. (Note: While working on this post, I discovered that the quote was taken out of the original article, and a follow-up article admitted to the falsehood of the quote.) It is one thing for misinformation to circulate, but people who are trained to research and write shouldn’t go with something they think might be true.
I am also writing about it because historians have to deal with this kind of misinformation all of the time. Surely, you have heard that Catherine the Great died while having sex with a horse. It’s not true, but everyone thinks it is. You have also heard that George Washington could not tell a lie. That probably made his espionage efforts during the Revolutionary War hard to manage. That’s despite being one of the best parts of his strategy.
It is hard to get to the reality of history. It is especially hard when people have misinformation about it already in their minds. All of this is made worse when a reputable newspaper interviews a reputable activist, and they spread the misinformation further.
She is probably correct. Elvis could have done more during his life to make the world better. Instead, he fell into a life of extravagance and drugs. There are many lessons to be learned from the Elvis story but adding wrong information only makes those lessons harder to learn.