Statues of singer Johnny Cash and civil rights leader Daisy Bates will eventually represent Arkansas in the U.S. Capitol. Gov. Asa Hutchinson was joined by members of the Cash family and the goddaughter of Bates for a bill signing ceremony Thursday at the state Capitol.
"This is an occasion that deserves a celebration about Arkansas history, about how we represent ourselves to the nation," Hutchinson said.
Each state has two statues and the ones currently on display from Arkansas were chosen more than a century ago. Uriah M. Rose was an attorney and founder of the Rose Law Firm and James P. Clarke was an Arkansas governor and U.S. Senator. Backers of the legislation said both were honorable men, but that it was time for an update.
"Whenever you take guests through Statutory Hall, we want our memories through our statues to tell the story of Arkansas. And I believe that our story is well represented by these two historic figures, Johnny Cash and Daisy Bates," Hutchinson said.
Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas and at the age of three, in 1935, his family moved to Dyess, which was a planned community created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. His daughter Rosanne Cash, an accomplished performer of her own, spoke about the influence the area had on the family.
"The music that the Cash family… sang in the fields, the church, and in their Dyess home formed the background of their lives. And for my father, it became the center of his life and the wellspring from which he drew his inspiration. He said quite often that he loved every rock, every tree, every clot of dirt in Dyess, Arkansas," Rosanne Cash said.
Johnny Cash sold over 90 million records during his long career, which started in the 1950s at Sun Records in Memphis during the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. He became a country music superstar during the 1960s and then experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 1990s when he began working with producer Rick Ruben who exposed Cash to a younger generation of fans. He is among the few performers to be inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"We’re especially honored that a statue of my dad has been chosen to represent Arkansas in our nation’s Capitol. I’m just… it’s such a thrill. This has been made even more special by the fact that he will be sharing this honor with Daisy Bates," Rosanne Cash said to applause. "I have so much respect for her. She was a true humanitarian. Her commitment to social justice, to civil rights is unparalleled and really an inspiration."
Bates was a writer and activist who mentored the nine black students who desegregated Central High School in 1957. When National Guard Troops kept the Little Rock Nine from attending classes, the students were tutored in Bates’ house. After President Dwight Eisenhower sent the Army to ensure the students could get through angry segregationist mobs, she would escort them to and from school.
Sen. David Wallace sponsored the bill to change the state’s statues and praised Bates for her courage.
"I’m an old soldier, I know a little about courage, but the courage that it took for her everyday to walk with those children – Mrs. Bates changed Arkansas, changed it for the better." Regarding Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Wallace said, "I grew up about 20 miles away. I picked cotton, I chopped cotton. Johnny Cash represents the common man, the common woman of Arkansas. I can’t think of two better statues than what we have."
He said that while the legislation was not easy to get passed through the House and Senate, he called it a "fun bill." Cash and Bates were selected by members of the Senate, which prompted some House members to ask that their chamber be allowed to select one of the two. Some also questioned whether Cash was an appropriate role model. Other notable Arkansans were also suggested, including Walmart founder Sam Walton.
Gov. Hutchinson had mentioned Cash and Bates in January as ideal for statues before the start of the legislative session and his support never wavered. Regarding Bates, he said Thursday that her role in the civil rights struggle is "a part of our past that we need to learn from, that we need to be inspired by."
Hutchinson recognized Bates’ goddaughter Jan Brown during the bill signing ceremony and presented her with a photo that he and Bates had taken together during the 1990s. Also in attendance were members of the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and members of the L.C. & Daisy Bates Museum Foundation, which maintains her house.
The statues will be funded through private donations, which will have state oversight.
During the ceremony Thursday, Hutchinson also signed a separate bill to establish Arkansas Music Appreciation Day, which will be observed each year on Sept. 1.
"Arkansas has a proud history of contributing music and musicians to the nation including Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Al Green, Conway Twitty and Floyd Cramer. And let me tell you, I know there’s more, without any doubt," Hutchinson said. "It is not a legal holiday – no day off – but a day of music, a day of celebration."
The new holiday will be followed about six weeks later by the annual Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, hosted by Arkansas State University, which restored Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess as part of its Arkansas Heritage Sites program. The three day event will be held Oct. 17-19 and feature performances by Rosanne Cash, Marty Stewart, and Johnny Cash’s siblings Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash.
There will also be academic presentations on Oct. 18. Thom Zimny will discuss his feature-length documentary "The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash," which premiered in March at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Also speaking will be Pam Baucom, co-producer of an eight part, 16 hour Ken Burns documentary called "Country Music," which will debut in September on PBS.
Rosanne Cash said she has served as a consultant for the series, which has been years in the making, and will also be featured in it.
"It is phenomenal. I just can’t wait for it to be aired. I think people, even if you think you know what country music is, you’re going to be flabbergasted, it’s remarkable."