Threatening leaflets. Shows getting cancelled. 1965 was a dark year for Johnny Cash, and one which saw the embattled star of country music facing a possible boycott in some areas of the Jim Crow South. And it wasn’t because he had recently been busted smuggling drugs, but because he appeared at the courthouse with a woman that bigots thought was an African-American.

Vivian Liberto, Cash’s First Wife

In 1951, Cash was a radio operator for the Air Force on the brink of being sent overseas to intercept transmissions from Soviet Russia. It was around this time that he made the acquaintance of Vivian Liberto, a beautiful, bashful 17-year old girl from San Antonio.

After a courtship that took place mostly through letters, the pair wed in 1954, just before Cash skyrocketed to fame in the world of country music. The musician quickly developed an addiction to prescription drugs, and a lifelong passion for another married musician, June Carter.

The US/Mexico Border Arrest

His marriage to Liberto was already on the rocks when he got arrested at the border between the USA and Mexico for a large quantity of sedatives and amphetamines he had purchased from a dealer south of the Rio Grande. It’s safe to say The Man In Black didn’t settle for the kind of thrills we do nowadays, like those to be found in a good online slots Australia offering, for example. He had almost 500 Equanil tablets and nearly 700 Dexedrine capsules hidden away in his guitar case. He spent the night in jail, and plead guilty to drug possession two months later.

He got off with a sentence that got deferred and a fine of US$1000, and had absolutely no idea that, as he left the courthouse along with Liberto, his wife’s presence alongside him was about to set off a firestorm in Alabama.

The National States Rights Party Takes Exception to Liberto

An Associated Press photograph of the pair was run in newspapers the following day. To some of the small-minded readers, it looked like Liberto, an Italian-American who avoided the limelight and was photographed very rarely, was not a white woman.

A white supremacist party based in Alabama called The National States Rights Party, reproduced the photo in its own little paper, The Thunderbolt, and accompanied it with hate-filled racist rhetoric. The money which Cash’s hit records was generating, it claimed, went to scum like the musician pictured, who then squandered it on negro women and dope.

Although the National States Rights Party was not the Ku Klux Klan, it had close ties to the latter, and it was, in fact identified by many, including Cash himself, as that organisation. Michael Streissguth, the author of Johnny Cash: The Biography, has said that Cash’s manager, Saul Holiff was forced to respond, and he tried to set the record straight. Cash also released a statement about his wife’s ethnicity, and threatened a lawsuit.

The campaign against Cash succeeded only partly however. Far more cancellations came from his arrest than the charges that the separatist group was levelling.


Categories: Stories of artists

Leave a Reply