BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — 63 years ago this summer, a white supremacist bombed Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham. While the historic church, whose pastor was once civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, was the extremist’s most famous target, it was not his last.
After the church bombing, but before he was sentenced for his crime decades later, J.B. Stoner had another target: country legend Johnny Cash.
By his teen years, Stoner was already a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He frequently called Martin Luther King, Jr., by a different middle name: “Lucifer.” He won a fight with the FCC to use a racial slur in commercials, and campaigned for US Senate, unsuccessfully, on that “victory.”
At his death, the New York Times called Stoner an “unapologetic racist,” deeming him, in the headline of his obituary, a “fervent racist and benchmark for extremism.”
But African-Americans weren’t Stoner’s only target.
In October 1965, Johnny Cash was arrested at the El Paso International Airport for smuggling drugs. The country music star, who had previously been a middle-class appliance salesman in Memphis, was found in possession of “668 tablets of a stimulant and 475 tranquilizer tablets,” which had been placed inside a sock and hidden in his guitar, according to newspaper reports at the time.
After nearly 24 hours in an El Paso jail, Cash was released on a $1,500 bond.
What came next would ignite racist sentiments across the country, inflame hate against Cash, and cause death threats against him and his family.
After his release on bail, Cash was photographed exiting the courthouse with his first wife, Vivian Liberto Cash. In the photos taken that day, particularly in the eyes of 1960s Americans, Vivian appeared to be Black.
The backlash was fast and furious.
“Everyone in the world saw the photo, including the Ku Klux Klan,” Vivian would later write in her memoir, I Walked the Line.
Vivian Cash, born Vivian Liberto, did not see herself as Black. She was the daughter of Irene Robinson, of German-Irish descent, and Thomas Peter Liberto, who was of Italian lineage. She passed away in 2005.
Enter J.B. Stoner. Earlier in 1965, Stoner had been in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where he spoke at a white supremacist rally that had halted a march promoting the Civil Rights movement, according to a contemporaneous report by the New York Times.
Stoner would shift his focus though. Following Cash’s arrest, Stoner and his white nationalist publication the Thunderbolt, headquartered in Birmingham, turned their attention to the Man in Black and his “Black” wife.
“Arrest exposes Johnny Cash’s negro wife,” the newspaper printed across an entire page, in all caps, just above the photo that had already been published by the Associated Press.
In its text, the article following the sensationalist headline went even further, calling the revelation “the best kept secret since the Atomic Bomb.”
Reaction to the AP photo’s proliferation, fanned into flame by the Thunderbolt diatribe, was fierce, particularly in the South.
“Johnny and I received death threats,” Vivian wrote in her memoir, “and an already shameful situation was made infinitely worse.”
Vivian preferred not to dignify the claims with any response, but Cash and his management disagreed.
“The stress was almost unbearable. I wanted to die,” Vivian wrote. “And it didn’t help that Johnny issued a statement to the KKK informing them I wasn’t Black.”
Reaction to the photo would not last forever, though. By the next year, Cash was back on the Billboard charts.
In February of this year, though, another element of this story came to light.
In an episode of PBS’ Finding Your Roots, the show’s host, “Henry “Skip” Gates,” revealed to Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny and Vivian, that she was, indeed, a descendant of a mixed-race enslaved person. This fact was confirmed through DNA testing.
Rosanne’s maternal great-great-grandmother, Gates explained, was named Sarah Shields.
Shields was the daughter of a Black woman and a white man and was granted her freedom by her father in 1848.
From that point on, Sarah Shield considered her family to be white.
“That’s likely why to this day, many of her direct descendants have no idea that they have any African American ancestry,” Gates told Cash.
When asked by Gates how it felt to learn the news, Cash began to cry.
“It feels heartbreaking,” she said.