By Colin Woodward
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Cummins Unit in Grady, Arkansas. I went because I was asked by Jo Wheeler and Danny Robins producing a show for BBC radio to talk about Johnny Cash’s April 1969 concert at the prison. Earlier this year, I had written a short article about Cash, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform. The BBC also talked that day to John Kirk, the head of the history department at UALR, who is an expert on Gov. Rockefeller and civil rights in Arkansas.
While my people love Johnny Cash, they probably don’t know how passionate he was about changing the prison culture, especially in his home state of Arkansas. It’s safe to say that in 1969, Arkansas had the worst prison system in the country. In 1970, the entire prison system was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Rockefeller had made prison reform one of the foundations of his run for governor in 1966. When WR ran for reelection in 1968 (governor’s then served only two years in Arkansas), Johnny Cash campaigned with him, performing concerts in such places as Harrison, Winthrop, and Fayetteville.
The April 1969 Cummins concert was something of a culmination of Cash’s efforts to bring about prison reform. By then, Cash’s At Folsom Prison live album had become a huge hit. Cash had always written about law-breakers and prisoners. “Folsom Prison Blues” was one of the first songs he had ever written, and it became an instant classic. But Cash also had recorded such great prison songs as “25 Minutes to Go,” about a condemned man’s last few minutes on earth–done with typically dark Johnny Cash humor (though the song was written by Shel Silverstein). At Cummins, however, Cash’s performance was never more political.
Most people probably don’t think of Johnny Cash as very political. But he was. Class issues had always been at the heart of his music. His early hit “Folsom Prison Blues” speaks of “rich folks” drinking coffee and smoking cigars in a train’s “fancy dining car,” while a prisoner rotted away behind bars. Cash identified with the working man: the poor farmers, the auto workers. He also championed Native Americans and the soldiers fighting the war in Vietnam. All without ever sounding smug or PC. He went so far as to call the prisoners at Cummins “my people.”
It’s tempting in 2012 to think of country music–at least the stuff you hear on FM radio–as the soundtrack of anti-government, redneck conservatives. Cash might’ve been a redneck and Republican. But he probably would not like the Republican Party of today. One could go so far as to call Cash a liberal, albeit in the Cold War sense of that term. Men as personally diverse as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were pretty much cut from the same liberal cloth: they were anti-communist, big government candidates in 1960.
Cash’s humble upbringing was more similar to that of Duke-educated Nixon (born to lower-class Quakers) than the wealthy, Harvard-graduate Kennedy. Cash was raised in a religious household on a government-planned farm in Dyess. He later joined the military to escape his hometown. Cash was many things, but anti-government wasn’t one of them.
By the late 1960s, Cash had little use for racist southern demagogues like George Wallace, who dominated Democratic southern states, including Arkansas. It is no wonder Cash threw his support behind Rockefeller, a Republican and a Yankee. But not until 1968 did Cash campaign for a politician who had made prison reform a cornerstone of his governorship. At Cummins, Cash composed a song just for the concert, “When I Get Out of Cummins,” which spoke of him stomping up the steps of the capital in Little Rock to demand change from the legislators.
Cash, of course, had the luxury of being at Cummins for only a day. For some inmates, they would not leave Cummins alive. He could also say things about issues that politicians had to address more cautiously.
Cash was earnest about the possibilities of rehabilitation. And Gov. Rockefeller was able to do some good while in office. But problems within the system continued, both in practice and in the court of public opinion. Robert Sarver, the head of the prison system in Arkansas, went on the Dick Cavett show in 1970 to discuss what was going on in his state. Cavett was shocked by what Sarver told him, amazed that in Arkansas prisoners, called trusties, were allowed to carry guns, while civilian guards were not. Sarver’s interview was interesting in that you hear him at once trying to work some damage control while also being forthright about the prisons. Sarver contended that all prisons were bad, though Arkansas’ were admittedly worse. He said, perhaps a little flippantly, that reform was nothing that a little more money wouldn’t solve. Sarver, however, also said that it was ridiculous that a kid who had stolen a few hubcaps might serve hard time at a place like Cummins. He also said that drug laws should be liberalized so that men convicted of marijuana offenses were not sent to the same place as violent criminals.
Sarver had to defend his boss, the governor, and his decision to fire Tom Murton, who had exposed some of the more horrible abuses in the system. Murton wanted a further investigation into the discovery of three skeletons at the Cummins site. He believed there were as many as 200 skeletons there. Rockefeller fired him before the investigation could continue. Sarver said Murton was “too honest,” making political enemies when some politicians stood in his way. Murton, nevertheless, wrote a book about his work at Cummins, which became the basis for the film Brubaker.
Johnny Cash didn’t talk much about African Americans in his songs. But his efforts at prison reform highlighted the racial issues that compounded the economic and political challenges of prison reform. Before the 1960s, Cummins had been the prison for African Americans in Arkansas. Shortly before Cash visited Grady, however, Robert Sarver had ordered the desegregation of the state prisons. This action would take some time to implement fully, and not without many problems.
Cash’s belief that prisoners could change for the better wasn’t merely political, but also religious. He was raised in a southern Baptist household. And after struggling with a hellish drug problem for much of the 1960s, Cash found new strength in Jesus. If he could change, so could others. He knew that had things gone worse for him, he might’ve ended up somewhere like Cummins.
The day of his concert, he talked with an inmate who had played guitar in his band at the Grand Ole Opry years before. Cash believed religion could change men for the better. And he said he’d donate money to build a chapel at Cummins (though it appears the money went to the construction of the first state prison chapel at Tucker instead).
My trip to Cummins was the first time I had ever been inside a prison. It was a beautiful fall day, and the administrators and guards were friendly, but going inside was not easy. Like Johnny Cash, I believe society should think more about rehabilitation than retribution. But also like him, I was glad my stay lasted only a few hours.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.