There have been quite a few celebrity advocates for the AIM movement over the years, but one that is little known as being an advocate for AIM is Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was always known as a rebel, and didn’t always act in ways that everyone agreed with. But, by releasing his album in 1964 Bitter Tears caused him to receive some of the greatest backlash he would ever receive. He was one of the first big celebrities to take a stand for American Indian rights. Some even stating that it is the earliest and most significant statement about Native issues.
Early on in his career Johnny Cash knew he wanted make an album dedicated to the struggle of Native peoples. His support for American Indian peoples stems from growing up in Arkansas, around a large Native population. His family struggled with poverty not unlike the Native Americans; however, programs like the New Deal helped his family progress out of poverty. However, he looked at his Native neighbors and saw no such progress with them. Solely because they didn’t receive federal aid like his white family did. He was so entwined in Native American culture and issues that he often claimed to be Native; however, refuting these statements later on. Cash’s strong ties to the Native American community caused him to act on their behalf. Speak against the mistreatment of American Indians in our country. He decided to raise awareness about these issues the only way he knew how, through music. So he released the album Bitter Tears containing 8 powerful songs all containing messages about the struggles of Native Americans in the United States. However, only two of the songs rising to the top. Bitter Tears and The Ballad of Ira Hayes carried the album reaching the top of the charts. Even with the success of these two songs, he received wicked backlash from the album itself. Almost costing him his career.
When he released the album many radio stations refused to play the songs. In response to this he wrote them a letter stating ” DJs, station managers, owners etc. Where are your guts? Ira Hayes is strong medicine. So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham, and Vietnam.” Even though Cash was deeply disappointed of the opposition of his album he continued to play songs from it in every concert after. Even singing Ira Hayes for Richard Nixon when another song was requested.
Like many after him, Cash was a relentless supporter and advocate, of the AIM movement. Spurring support from others like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Steve Earle. His compassion, love, and respect for Native peoples caused him to stand up for what he knew was right. Regardless of the impact on his reputation. We can learn many lessons from Mr. Cash. Standing up for what you believe in is one of them.