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by Colin E. Woodward, Ph.D.
“There’s a lot of things that need changin’, Mr. Legislator Man,” Johnny Cash said to the crowd of prisoners, guards, and politicians at Cummins Prison on a warm afternoon in the spring of 1969. No one in attendance would have argued with Cash, especially not the politicians. Cash, the Arkansas native known as the Man in Black for his perpetually-dark stage outfits, was no stranger to playing for convicts. But his performance at Cummins—the Lincoln County, Arkansas, correctional facility located about 60 miles southeast of Little Rock—proved no ordinary day for the cheering crowd of white and black prisoners seated under the April Arkansas sun.
By the time he strutted to the Cummins stage with the four members of his band, Cash had already become famous, perhaps even infamous, for his prison shows. The Cummins concert came upon the heels of his rocking live album, At Folsom Prison (recorded in California), which had become a hit record. However, at the April 10 show at Cummins, Cash was joined not only by his wife, June, but also Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and the head of the state prison system, Robert Sarver. Playing his edgy mix of country, rock, and gospel-inspired tunes, Cash’s concert unofficially kicked off a new era of Arkansas prison reform.
As he liked to do, Cash composed a song specially written for the audience at Cummins. In his signature baritone, the former sharecropper crooned:
When I get out of Cummins
I’m goin’ to Little Rock
I’m gonna walk right up those Capitol steps
I ain’t even gonna knock
If the legislature’s in session
There’s something I’m gonna say
You say you’re tryin’ to rehabilitate us
Then show us you are
At the time, Arkansas had arguably the worst prison system in the country. “Trusties,” themselves prisoners, policed the grounds. Many inmates were tortured and abused, while others suffered from unspeakable sanitary conditions, lack of food, and woeful medical treatment. Conditions became so bad for inmates that in 1970, the United States Supreme Court, citing the Eight Amendment’s probation against “cruel and unusual punishment,” ruled the entire state system unconstitutional.
Governor Rockefeller had made prison reform one of the cornerstones of his administration. To help him, he had appointed Robert Sarver, who had previously worked in West Virginia, as the commissioner of corrections after the dismissal of controversial reformer Thomas Murton (whose exploits became the basis of the film Brubaker). Not long before Cash played at Cummins, more than two hundred skeletons were unearthed on the prison grounds, most of which officials could not identify.
Cash shared Winthrop Rockefeller’s commitment to social justice and prison reform. During Rockefeller’s 1968 gubernatorial campaign, Cash had sung for the governor seven times throughout Arkansas. It was the first time he had performed for any politician. Contrary to legend, Cash had never served time in jail himself, but he had more than a few run-ins with the law. And writing about convicts was one of his lifelong passions. Prisoners loved his shows, which included such gritty tunes as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Wanted Man,” and “25 Minutes to Go,” the latter an ironic take on a condemned man’s last few moments before his hanging.
In the late 1960s, despite many calls for politicians to usher in a tough new era of “law and order,” Cash believed in treating convicts humanely. “Prisoners are people,” he said. “They’re alive. And they can change.” Cash donated $5,000 to construct a chapel at the Cummins prison, while Governor Rockefeller contributed $10,000. “He can afford it,” Cash teased the governor, though Cash was also a wealthy man who lived in a 13,000 square foot mansion in Tennessee.
Even so, Cash’s poor upbringing in rural Arkansas and his songs about drunks, criminals, and outlaws, made him popular with blue collar audiences. For them, Cash’s music had a directness and honesty. At Cummins, Commissioner Sarver announced on stage that Cash had said “some things I’ve been afraid to say.” Sarver then proceeded to give Cash an honorary life sentence. The show concluded with Cash and the governor mounting a mule-drawn cart that carried them around the prison yard, much to the delight of the inmates.
Three weeks after Cash’s visit to Cummins, the Arkansas legislature gave the governor unprecedented funding for the state’s prisons. Up until that time, places like Cummins had been self-supporting, which, while pleasing fiscal conservatives, contributed to the corruption in the system. Johnny Cash certainly helped promote Rockefeller’s efforts at prison reform, and the governor returned the favor. In the fall of 1970, in honor of men like Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, “who have won the hearts of all Americans,” he declared October “Country Music Month.”