Johnny Cash's first performance, in 1971, of “Man in Black”
There were many shocking images from the Charlottesville violence from last weekend that caused anger and anguish, but video showing a neo-Nazi in a Johnny Cash t-shirt was particularly upsetting for one distinguished American family.
“We were alerted to a video of a young man in Charlottesville, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, spewing hatred and bile,” began a remarkable message posted yesterday on Facebook. “He was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of Johnny Cash, our father. We were sickened by the association.”
The post was titled “A message from the children of Johnny Cash,” namely Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash, Cindy Cash, Tara Cash and John Carter Cash.
“Johnny Cash was a man whose heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice,” the message continued. “He received humanitarian awards from, among others, the Jewish National Fund, B’nai B'rith, and the United Nations. He championed the rights of Native Americans, protested the war in Vietnam, was a voice for the poor, the struggling and the disenfranchised, and an advocate for the rights of prisoners. Along with our sister Rosanne, he was on the advisory board of an organization solely devoted to preventing gun violence among children. His pacifism and inclusive patriotism were two of his most defining characteristics. He would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our society, and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII. Several men in the extended Cash family were among those who served with honor.”
Johnny Cash, of course, was known as “The Man in Black” for his all-black outfit onstage. As he explained in his 1971 hit “Man in Black,” “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” He went on to also cite “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime but is there because he's a victim of the times,” “those who never read or listened to the words that Jesus said,” “the ones who are held back...the sick and lonely old…the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,” and “the lives that could have been”--specifically soldiers who died in Vietnam-- for his choice of dark attire.
Noteworthy, too, was that Cash, who was heavily influenced by both white and black gospel artists and performed gospel songs on record and in concert, refused President Richard Nixon’s 1970 request to perform at the White House Merle Haggard’s signature hit “Okie from Muskogee” (which belittled young drug users and war protesters) and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac,” which derided welfare recipients.
Rather, he performed “Man in Black” along with his 1964 hit cover of the folk song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (about the Native American Marine who famously helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, only to die of exposure to cold and alcohol poisoning 10 years later) and “What is Truth,” his 1970 hit that at a time of generational polarization due to the war and youth culture, sided with the young people and their demand for truth.
“Our dad told each of us, over and over throughout our lives, ‘Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love,’” the Cash siblings wrote.
“We do not judge race, color, sexual orientation or creed. We value the capacity for love and the impulse towards kindness. We respect diversity, and cherish our shared humanity. We recognize the suffering of other human beings, and remain committed to our natural instinct for compassion and service.”
They concluded: “To any who claim supremacy over other human beings, to any who believe in racial or religious hierarchy: we are not you. Our father, as a person, icon, or symbol, is not you. We ask that the Cash name be kept far away from destructive and hateful ideology.”
“We Choose Love.”
And beneath the message, they inserted a relevant quote from Rep. John Lewis: “Not one of us can rest, be happy, be at home, be at peace with ourselves, until we end hatred and division.”