On Oct. 4, 1965, country music star Johnny Cash was arrested near the U.S.-Mexico border after buying amphetamines and sedatives from a drug dealer in Juárez and stashing them in his guitar case. His long-suffering first wife, Vivian Liberto Cash, left their daughters in California and journeyed to El Paso to be by his side for the arraignment.
As Vivian stood with Cash in front of the federal courthouse, wrapped in a dark coat, her eyes downcast beneath her bouffant hairdo, a newspaper photographer snapped a picture. In the image, Vivian, whose father was of Sicilian heritage and whose mother was said to be of German and Irish descent, appeared to be Black.
At that time in the eyes of most Americans, you were either Black or you weren’t. Interracial marriage would not become legal nationally until 1967, and it would be considered anathema, particularly in the South, for years to come.
As the image of Johnny and Vivian began appearing in publications across the country, white supremacists went wild.
Leaders of the racist National States’ Rights Party in Alabama ran a story in their newspaper “The Thunderbolt” with the headline: “Arrest Exposes Johnny Cash’s Negro Wife.”
“Money from the sale of [Cash’s] records goes to scum like Johnny Cash to keep them supplied with dope and negro women,” the paper warned. The story also mentioned the couple’s “mongrelized” young children, which included future country star Rosanne Cash and her younger sisters, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. The organization, which was connected to the Ku Klux Klan, then launched a fierce boycott against the famous musician that lasted over a year.
Cash’s handlers quickly launched a counterattack, filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and soliciting testimonials from relatives and friends attesting to Vivian’s racial background. They included Vivian’s designation as Caucasian on her marriage certificate and a list of the Whites-only schools she had attended.
But was Vivian’s heritage fully Western European as her relatives insisted, or was something else mixed in?
An African American passing her on the street could be forgiven for thinking Vivian was a light-skinned Black woman, with her full lips and darkish skin. Yet if it were a case of “passing” as White — something many Black Americans had done to escape discrimination throughout history — Vivian and her family seemed wholly unaware. The DNA tests that have upset conventional thinking about race had not yet been invented.
Were there African ancestors in Vivian Cash’s family tree? The answer would not arrive for more than half a century.
A long-distance courtship
Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto met during the summer of 1951 at a roller rink in San Antonio where Vivian had been raised in a strict Catholic family, the daughter of Thomas Liberto, owner of an insurance agency and an amateur musician, and Irene Robinson Liberto, a homemaker.
Cash, who came from a struggling Arkansas farm family, was in his Air Force uniform. The petite and lovely Liberto, 17, was out skating before a sleepover with a friend. The story goes that Cash’s buddies dared him to talk to her and that he possibly bumped into her on the rink to get the conversation going. However it started, the couple’s romance appeared instantaneous.
After Cash, then 19, left for Germany a few weeks later, they began an ardent courtship. They wrote each other almost every day, sometimes more than once, amassing more than a thousand letters over the next few years. Vivian would later publish some of them in her memoir “I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny Cash,” named for the 1956 song her husband wrote about their marriage.
“My Baby,” Cash wrote to Liberto on March 29, 1952 at 11 a.m. “I just went to mail call and I got two more letters from you. That makes seven in the last three days. And I’m in love with you, honey. I never fell so hard in my life. I think about you every minute of the day and you’re with me wherever I go. Don’t ever worry about me stopping loving you darling because I know I never will. I’ve gotten you so deep under my skin that you’re a part of me.”
He called Vivian, who was shy and very traditional, his “little girl” and referred adoringly to her Italian heritage, even as he fretted over their impending “mixed marriage” because he was Protestant and she was Catholic.
Cash also wrote about getting in a fight with a Black man in which Cash hurled racial epithets. “I yelled for a full 30 minutes that I could whip any Negro who walked on the face of the Earth,” Cash wrote Vivian in a letter on May 1, 1953.
His actions stand in sharp contrast to his later reputation as a tolerant man, which some attributed to his evolution from a small-town rural boy to a much more worldly musician.
Cash’s letters to Vivian also revealed that he was already battling demons as a deeply religious man who had love-hate relationships with alcohol and women. His struggles with addiction and fidelity would come fully to the fore after the glorious first years of his 1954 marriage to Vivian.
‘I wanted to die’
As he spent countless days on the road building and nurturing a booming career, Cash deep-sixed on drugs and began an affair with Country singer June Carter, his future second wife. In 1965, the dalliance was an open secret when Vivian, by then deeply distressed by the state of her marriage, attended Cash’s court hearing in El Paso.
The white supremacist media campaign against Cash devastated Vivian.
“The stress was almost unbearable. I wanted to die,” she wrote in her memoir. “And it didn’t help that Johnny issued a statement to the KKK informing them I wasn’t Black.” She did not think the campaign should have been dignified with a response.
In the 2020 documentary “My Darling Vivian” about Cash and his first wife, the couple’s daughters added more detail: Back home in Casitas Springs, Calif., the death threats and vitriol had frightened Vivian to the core.
“She was scared to death that the KKK was coming for her and that Dad would be on the road,” Kathy Cash said in the documentary. “She had no idea what to do. Everyone knew where we lived.”
Night after night, Vivian stood at the living room picture window, coffee and cigarette in hand, surveilling the front yard and the driveway, a gun close by.
Between Cash’s drug use and neglect, June Carter and the fear, she was unraveling — losing weight, not sleeping, nerves fraying. Her doctor urged her to save herself. Cash’s mother suggested that if Vivian filed for divorce it would jolt her husband to his senses and he would come home and work on their marriage, according to Robert Hilburn in “Johnny Cash: The Life.”
Instead, Cash signed the papers and the couple was divorced in 1966. “He won the battle against bigotry but lost his wife,” blared a headline in the Dallas Times- Herald.
Two years later, Cash married Carter and Vivian married police officer Dick Distin and faded into “negative obscurity,” her daughters said, much of the world oblivious to her 12-year marriage to Johnny Cash.
Yet one thing never changed: Vivian’s love for Cash. After her former husband died at 71 in 2003, just a few months after June, Vivian told her daughters: “Even though I didn’t see him or talk to him very often, just knowing he was on the planet was enough. But now that he’s not, I don’t know if I want to be here.”
Vivian died two years later .
Earlier this year, the mystery of whether Vivian was descended in part from Africans was finally resolved. In a February episode of the PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” host and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. presented Rosanne Cash with her DNA results and family genealogy.
Vivian Cash’s maternal great-great grandmother was indeed an enslaved Black woman, Sarah Shields, whose White father in 1848 had granted her and her eight siblings their freedom and their passage into Whiteness, too. Shields married a White man — albeit illegally — and by the time Jim Crow arrived in the 1930s all of her children and their descendants were listed as White.
“That’s likely why to this day, many of her direct descendants have no idea that they have any African American ancestry,” Gates said.
At one point in the conversation, Gates asked Cash how it felt to learn that her mother’s ancestors had been enslaved? Cash bent her head and began to cry.
“It feels heartbreaking,” she said.
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