Five people have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Memphis and Elvis Presley’s Graceland, saying they were discriminated against at a protest by a coalition associated with the Black Lives Matter movement during the annual vigil commemorating the singer’s death.
Graceland owner, Elvis Presley Enterprises, and the city are named in the complaint filed Wednesday in federal court.
Elvis Presley Enterprises issued a statement Thursday that did not directly address the lawsuit, but did say the tourist attraction has a history of being inclusive.
“For 34 years now, Graceland has welcomed over 20 million visitors. They have come to celebrate the life and legacy of Elvis Presley from nearly every country on earth, and they have all been welcomed without incident,” the statement said.
“Graceland is proud of its world-wide reputation for inclusion and hospitality as it welcomes the next 20 million visitors.”
In a statement Thursday evening, Memphis Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen said the city is “extremely confident that our officers did not engage in any discriminatory behavior.”
The protest by The Coalition of Concerned Citizens coincided with a candlelight vigil last year at the singer’s home-turned museum, held every year on the Aug. 16 anniversary of his death. Fans of Presley line up outside the gates of Graceland ahead of the vigil, which starts at night and goes into the early morning hours. Visitors walk past the grave of Presley and his relatives, which are located on the grounds of the home.
Protesters, most of them black, gathered on the street leading to Graceland, yelling slogans such as “black lives matter.”
The demonstration came at a time when racial tensions were heightened nationally following the killings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and the shootings of five Dallas police officers in retaliation.
Officers armed with riot gear stood along concrete barricades and blocked about 60 protesters from entering the permitted area where Presley’s fans gathered on a public street. Officers allowed people who said they were going to the vigil pass through the phalanx. Most were white.
Graceland officials said they appreciated police efforts to “maintain the peace.” Rain dampened the vigil and protest.
The lawsuit claims several people were denied entry to the vigil by Memphis police because they are black. It says others were asked to leave a public sidewalk after saying “black lives matter.” Three people were arrested.
“The decision as to which citizens were allowed to attend the public vigil and which citizens were denied access to the public vigil, was based on the race of the citizens,” the lawsuit said.
Bruce Kramer, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, questioned the relationship between the Memphis Police Department and Graceland.
“Who coordinated this? Who was calling the shots?” Kramer said Thursday. “Why was the Memphis Police Department there and basically doing private security for Elvis Presley Enterprises?”
After the protest, state Sen. Lee Harris and state Rep. G.A. Hardaway relayed constituents’ concerns that African-Americans were denied entry based on racial profiling.
The vigil protest came about a month after dozens of protesters snarled traffic directly outside of Graceland and the entry to the home. Organizers said Graceland’s role as a high-profile tourist attraction made it an ideal place for a protest.
The group is demanding a jury trial and unspecified damages.