JACKSON, Miss. — More than 40 years after the late singer Johnny Cash was arrested in Starkville, residents of the east Mississippi town plan a festival in his honor that will include a ceremonial pardoning for the "Man in Black."
The Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival is scheduled for Nov. 2-4 with some events on the campus of Mississippi State University, said Robbie Ward, executive director of the festival.
Ward, a research writer at MSU, started talking to residents two years ago about a festival — and a pardon for Cash. He gathered 500 signatures on a petition and headed up a committee of 25 residents, including a local pastor, alderman and a bar owner.
"A lot of people would laugh at me and act like I was kind of crazy," Ward said.
But on Aug. 7 the Starkville Board of Aldermen approved the closing of downtown city streets for pedestrian traffic during the festival. The board also agreed to serve as an in-kind sponsor of the festival, meaning the city will donate fire, police, electric and sanitation services for the festival, Ward said.
In an Aug. 21 meeting the Board of Aldermen authorized Starkville Municipal Court Judge William Eshee to review the symbolic, posthumous pardon of Cash. Eshee promised a fair and impartial review of the pardon, Ward said.
"I think it would be fun to have John honored even though it started out as kind of a negative reason," said Lou Robin, Cash's manager for 31 years, now handles business affairs for the Johnny Cash Estate. Cash died in 2003.
There are different versions of what happened the night of May 11, 1965, in Starkville.
One told by Cash himself in his autobiography is that he was arrested by police while walking from his motel to a grocery store after attending a party at a fraternity house on the Mississippi State campus.
Another version is that Cash was arrested while picking flowers in someone's yard.
Cash admitted in his book, "I was screaming, cussing and kicking at the cell door all night long until I finally broke my big toe. At 8 a.m. the next morning they let me out when they knew I was sober."
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Cash wrote a song about the ordeal calling it, "Starkville City Jail," and later performed it for the inmates at San Quentin Prison.
"Starkville is now known by fans by virtue (of the song)," said Bill Miller, founder of the Web site JohnnyCash.com.
Ward said the message of the Starkville festival will focus on redemption, something he feels Cash exemplified. "We believe the pardon is not about his arrest in Starkville, it's recognizing that when people make mistakes what matters is what they learn from those mistakes," Ward said.
On Nov. 2, a community-wide social is planned with a charity auction at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house. At the university's amphitheater, there will be a showing of the Cash biopic "Walk the Line."
Ward is trying to line up those who have written books about Cash for a Nov. 3 discussion group on the Arkansas native. Later that day, plans include a ceremony at the site Cash was arrested, a downtown concert honoring Cash's music, a sermon on redemption and what Ward hopes to be a symbolic pardon by city officials issued to Cash's family.
Rev. Allison S. Parvin, associate pastor at the First United Methodist Church, will deliver the redemption sermon during the event. Cash's story "is just one of the great gospel stories of now," Parvin said.
Ward said the final event of the night would include a jam session on stage with musicians and an audience sing-along to "Starkville City Jail."
A community-wide church service is planned at the MSU amphitheater for Nov. 4 to close the festival.
Admission to the event will be free, with a suggested donation of $10 top benefit a local Boys and Girls Club and the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum.
To finance the event, the committee is selling T-shirts (black, of course), bearing the words "Pardon Me, I'm Pickin' Flowers."
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