Forty-two years after he was arrested and jailed overnight in Starkville, Mississippi, the late Johnny Cash is receiving an honor from the town that will include a ceremonial pardon.

The Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival is scheduled for November 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, 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 laughed at me and acted like I was crazy,” Ward said.

Responding to the petition, on August 21, the Starkville 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.

There are differing versions of what took place on 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 somebody’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.”

Cash wrote a song about the ordeal, “Starkville City Jail,” which he later performed for inmates during his historic concert at San Quentin Prison.

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.”

On Nov. 2, a community-wide social is planned with a charity auction at the Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity house. At the university’s amphitheater, there will be a screening of the Cash biopic, Walk the Line. The final event of the festival will include a jam session onstage and an audience sing-along to “Starkville City Jail.”

To finance the event, Ward is selling T-shirts (black only, of course) bearing the words “Pardon Me, I’m Pickin’ Flowers.”
Joe Bosso