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VOL. 132 | NO. 14 | Thursday, January 19, 2017

Federal Lawsuit Filed Over August Graceland Protest

By Bill Dries

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Five citizens denied entry to the annual candlelight vigil outside Graceland this past August are suing the city and Elvis Presley Enterprises for racial discrimination and civil rights violations.

The federal lawsuit was filed Wednesday, Jan. 18, by Aaron Lewis, Keedran Franklin, Earle Fisher, Catherine Lewis and Charline Tramel.

It seeks punitive damages of an unspecified amount, compensation for humiliation, embarrassment, emotional distress and mental anguish as well as an injunction barring such behavior in the future.

The Coalition of Concerned Citizens called for a protest at the annual Aug. 16 vigil commemorating the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death to call attention to issue of poverty and low-paying jobs.

Memphis Police responded with checkpoints on both sides of the vigil area on Elvis Presley Boulevard in an attempt to screen out and deny admittance to any protesters. Protesters denied entrance to the vigil area gathered at Elvis Presley Boulevard and Craft Road and were confined for a short time to an area enclosed in metal barricades. Three people were arrested by police.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Bruce Kramer, claims those denied entrance were turned away because they were African-Americans.

“Defendants, the city of Memphis Police Department, under the direction of Elvis Presley Enterprises, required black citizens attempting to attend the public vigil to remain in certain fenced-off areas and black citizens were not allowed access to Graceland or the sidewalks surrounding Graceland, which is open to the public,” the lawsuit reads. “Other similarly situated white citizens were allowed access to Graceland and to the public sidewalks surrounding Graceland.”

All five of the plaintiffs are African-Americans. Two of three people arrested by police in the protest were white. A large group of white protesters walked past the police checkpoints into the vigil area without any questions and began chanting “black lives matter” from the vigil side of the police barrier at least an hour into the protest. As they chanted they walked through the police line to the area where police were holding back other protesters.

The lawsuit alleges Graceland coordinated with Memphis Police in advance and that Graceland had “one employee who was directing and/or coordinating with the Memphis Police Department and using the Memphis Police Department as Graceland’s security force for the public candlelight vigil.”

“The defendants … participated in a common design through a concert of action to allow white citizens to attend the public candlelight vigil and to deny African-American citizens access to the public candlelight vigil, the grounds of Graceland and to the areas surrounding Graceland, including public sidewalks, public streets and businesses open to the public,” according to the lawsuit.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings has denied any racial bias in how police determined who was a protester and who was attending the vigil, but the city has otherwise declined comment, citing the likelihood of a lawsuit.

“There is some pending litigation or could be, so I don’t really want to talk about that,” Rallings said in September on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

“What I want to talk about is that we had a plan where we would work with Graceland to keep that event safe,” he continued. “We had a number of threats of protest. And it wasn’t, ‘We’re going to protest.’ It was, ‘We are going to disrupt the candlelight vigil.’”

Rallings also cited concerns about terrorism in the police response to the protest.

“We’re on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a major thoroughfare – we are worried about that,” he said. “We’ve seen international and domestic terrorist attacks. I don’t forget about those things.”

Elvis Presley Enterprises said in a statement Thursday that the tourist attraction has a "world-wide reputation for inclusion."

The statement, which does not directly mention the lawsuit, says Graceland has welcomed more than 20 million visitors in the past 34 years from "nearly every country on earth, and they have all been welcomed without incident." It also states that Graceland is proud of its reputation for inclusion and hospitality.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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