by Brian Lynch on August 25th, 2017 // Johnny Cash vs. the Klan | Georgia Straight Vancouver’s News & Entertainment Weekly – 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.”