Everyone here knows who Johnny Cash is. While everyone should know Eugene Debs as well, I’m sure there’s a few who don’t. Debs was an American labor activist in the late 19th and early 20th Century. He ran for president five times on the Socialist ticket, once from prison while serving time for a “violation” of the Espionage and Sedition Act when he suggested that going to war was not a patriotic duty during WWI. At his trial, he said this:
Fifty-two years later, Johnny Cash said this:
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there oughta be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we all were on their side.
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black
I don’t know if the Man in Black ever read Debs’ statement, but it doesn’t matter, because the two share something important in common. Not socialism, not protest, not even a way with words. They empathize with the downtrodden, the unfortunate, the poor of all kinds, the poor in all of us even if we don’t recognize it. They draw no distinction between the deserving and undeserving. This isn’t the charity-on-parade to which so many artists pay lip service while living their oblivious lives of opulence. This is love. It reminds me of something else many of us are familiar with:
You don’t have be a Christian to be moved by those words and you don’t have to be God to feel the world’s pain. Eugene Debs and Johnny Cash are proof and their message is unifying if we only listen.