Johnny Cash vs. the Klan

B.C.–made biography The Man Who Carried Cash reflects the stakes of Charlottesville

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      Your average white supremacist is a kind of expert at ignorance. He (or she—but let’s say he for the moment) puts in a lot of practice time. How else do you work up nostalgia for slavery?

      So it wasn’t much of a surprise when footage of the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 revealed one cretin ignorant enough to show up wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt. He’d likely assumed that Cash, an Arkansas-born country-music star whose career began back in the days of segregation, represented some sort of kindred spirit.

      But if that’s what he was thinking (and he almost certainly was—racists are notoriously fussy about rally wear), he was wrong. Holy shit, was he wrong.

      An August 16 Facebook post, written by Cash’s children to call out this distorted human, was among the most forceful condemnations of the horrors in Charlottesville, at a time when the U.S. president was fine with dismissing it all as a regrettable scuffle between law-abiding history buffs and the “alt-left” thug-elites who hate them.

      Cash’s views on organized racism were more than a matter of principle. They were personal, as a compelling new biography by Nanaimo author Julie Chadwick describes.

      Chadwick built The Man Who Carried Cash (Dundurn Press) out of a previously unknown archive of clippings, letters, and tapes kept by Saul Holiff, Cash’s manager of many years. Holiff was a Canadian, born in London, Ontario, in 1925, and the trove he left behind when he died in Nanaimo in 2005 tells a story of the shining artistic highs and druggy lows he witnessed.

      One chapter of this tale recalls how Holiff and Cash entered a showdown with the Ku Klux Klan in the mid 1960s, an era when, riled by the victories of the civil-rights movement, it was estimated to be stronger and more murderous than at any other time since its peak in the 1920s.

      This period happened to be a high point in Cash’s musical career, with the release of albums like the million-selling I Walk the Line and Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. As Chadwick notes, perhaps it was the latter, reflecting Cash’s public support for Indigenous peoples, that drew the attention of white supremacists in the South.

      In January 1966, an article in the Thunderbolt targeted Cash directly. The newspaper was an arm of the National States’ Rights Party, the Tennessee-based far-right organization chaired by J.B. Stoner, an imperial wizard of the KKK who would later be convicted for a role in the infamous 1958 bombing of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The article claimed to reveal “the best-kept secret since the Atomic Bomb…the fact that Singer Johnny Cash has a Negress for a wife and they have four mongrelized children.” It was a fabrication (Cash’s wife at the time was of Italian descent). But that was entirely beside the point: the threat was plain in an era of commonplace racist violence.

      “They hope to keep this information secret,” the piece spewed on, “so that the race-mixers who are in control of the recording industry can continue to sell such records to your teenage children. Money from the sale of said records goes to scum like Johnny Cash to keep them supplied with dope and negro women.”

      This article appeared in a January 1966 edition of the Thunderbolt newspaper, an arm of the National States’ Rights Party connected to the Ku Klux Klan.

      As Chadwick’s book recounts, Cash’s announcement of a $25-million lawsuit did little to deter the Klan and its sympathizers from mounting a two-year campaign against him. Hotels he stayed in received bomb threats. Auditoriums he was booked to play were barricaded by “hooded crazies”. Flyers and newspaper ads gave the phone number of a recorded message repeating the Thunderbolt slurs.

      But Cash pressed on with his tours, even playing a show in Greenville, North Carolina, despite being warned he’d be killed for it. And Holiff, for his part, went so far as to call a meeting with national Klan chief Robert Shelton in order to confront him face to face.

      “It’s good to know who hates you, and it’s good to be hated by the right people,” Cash said, looking back years later. “The Klan is despicable, filthy, dirty, and unkind.”

      Thanks to the racist dolt in the Johnny Cash T-shirt for reminding us all of this, and of what’s at stake once again.