In February 1969, prisoners in San Quentin State Prison cheered while treated to a live concert by the man in black. Johnny Cash, with his characteristic bravado, brazenly declared, “San Quentin, may you rot in Hell.” One of the prisoners recalled of the performance: “He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.” The performance was memorialized by a U.K. film crew and became a feature-length documentary. Cash was not new to concerts behind bars; he had been playing in prisons for years, most famously at Folsom Prison. However, this time, Cash performed songs specifically written for prisoners, including the title track “San Quentin” and “Wanted Man,” co-written by Bob Dylan. When Cash took the stage, his audience consisted of men designated as dangerous criminals. Most were poor and White, with many serving life sentences or awaiting execution. San Quentin has not surrendered its infamous reputation, and it remains the “most populous antechamber in the U.S.”
At almost the same time, five hours away in Los Angeles, young activist and radical scholar Angela Davis was organizing rallies to demand the release of political prisoners. Davis would later be incarcerated and face capital charges, sparking a worldwide movement for her release. Johnny Cash and Angela Davis don’t have a lot in common, and there is little evidence to suggest they ever met. But each in their own way spoke out against the injustices of the U.S. prison system. With a guitar or with a megaphone, both protested against punishment and advocated for rehabilitation.
44 years after their efforts, the system of incarceration has grown worse and the racial demographics have changed drastically. Black and Latino people now account for 70% of California’s prison population. These figures lend an even greater urgency to the work of Angela Davis and Johnny Cash. The harsh realities of contemporary prison rates require multidimensional advocacy from musicians, politicians, students and activists. Organizations like the Formerly Incarcerated Persons Movement and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and musicians like Paul Rucker, John Forté and Jasiri X are all working to end mass incarceration. The fight may not be easy, but the movement is growing. Someday not even armies will be able to stop an idea whose time has come.
by Talía Pedraza Ávila, Graduate Student in Politics at the New School for Social Research