On 16 August 2017, Rosanne Cash — daughter of famed country singer Johnny Cash — published an open letter to Facebook after it came to the family’s attention that a neo-Nazi marcher in Charlottesville had appeared on television in a shirt with her father’s name on it:
We were alerted to a video of a young man in Charlottesville, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, spewing hatred and bile. He was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of Johnny Cash, our father. We were sickened by the association.
Johnny Cash was a man whose heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice. He received humanitarian awards from, among others, the Jewish National Fund, B’nai Brith, 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.
Our dad told each of us, over and over throughout our lives, ‘Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.’
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.
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.
John Carter Cash
The footage she describes do not appear to be available directly on Fox News’ YouTube page, but “The Young Turks” host Cenk Uygar addressed the comments in a 14 August 2017 video. Uygar’s coverage of the specific segment involving the man and his shirt began at approximately 1:50:
The activism Cash’s daughter briefly described was the focus of a 2014 New York Times editorial, which revisited the singer’s bold social stances during the tumultous 1960s. In an advertisement placed in Billboard by Johnny Cash, he expressed support for the civil rights movement:
Fifty years ago, at the height of his success, Johnny Cash chose to use his newly acquired power to make a record that nearly destroyed his career.
Coming off his crossover hit “Ring of Fire,” and against strong resistance from his record label, Cash recorded “Bitter Tears,” an album in support of Native American rights … Cash stuck his neck out even farther when he learned of a shadowy boycott against the record and its single, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about the Pima Indian who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, then died a disillusioned alcoholic at 32. “D.J.’s – station managers – owners, etc., where are your guts?” he said in a full-page ad in Billboard magazine. “’Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine. So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam,” he said of cites with racial tension and struggles, and the war that was beginning to tear apart the nation.
In 2016, an ACLU blog post chronicled Cash’s hard-fought battle to bring a message of social justice to radio:
Cash saw the dire contrast to what his family was able to experience and that of the native people around him, who were living in near squalor and destitution — thanks in large part to the failure of the U.S. government to honor treaties. Also, for a long period he aligned himself so closely to native people that he often claimed to be native, which he wasn’t and refuted much later in his life. It really came down to a clear, basic mantra for Cash: If any group of people face injustice and are denied their rights, then there is no freedom or justice for any of us. In the letter, Cash made it clear: “I would sing more of this land but all of God’s children ain’t free.”
This was 1964. The country was white hot with unrest. The looming presidential election was contentious and filled with often abominable, dangerous rhetoric. For example, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, spoke openly of inciting nuclear war when he proclaimed, “Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.” He also strongly opposed civil rights, asserting, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
This fraught political environment filled the executive suites at Cash’s label and programming booths of many radio stations with fear. While Columbia honored the contract to ship a minimal amount of records for sale, they undertook a type of “soft censorship” where they did no promotion and just ignored its existence. And of course, many radio stations just refused to play it. When Cash learned of all the opposition, he made it his mission to get the record out there. He bought back thousands of copies of the record, penned a protest letter that he placed as an ad in “Billboard” magazine, stuffed the letter inside each record, and traveled around the country hand delivering the record to radio stations and asking them to give it a chance. A line from the opening paragraph from the letter says it all: “DJs, station managers, owners, etc., where are your guts?”
In 2013, the BBC looked back at Cash’s numerous (uncompensated) concerts for prisoners, as well as the reasons behind his personal passion for the cause of prison reform:
Cash’s famous live albums recorded at Folsom Prison and San Quentin are the stuff of music legend – likely to feature on any critic’s list of defining albums of the 1960s.
But it’s much less well-known that these were only two of many prison concerts Cash played over the course of almost 30 years.
Fitting the gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, the “Man in Black” performed for inmates all over the US, always unpaid, and in the process, became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights.
“He always identified with the underdog,” says Tommy Cash, Johnny’s youngest brother. “He identified with the prisoners because many of them had served their sentences and had been rehabilitated in some cases, but were still kept there the rest of their lives. He felt a great empathy with those people.”
Cash was known for his all-black ensemble while performing, and was nicknamed “The Man in Black.” The moniker later became a protest song released in 1971, explaining the “reason for the things that I have on”:
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times
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