Why Johnny Cash's First Wife, Vivian Liberto, Was Targeted By The KKK And The Catholic Church

Music legend Johnny Cash may be best remembered for his enduring marriage to fellow musical powerhouse June Carter, but his earlier union with Vivian Liberto made headlines for different reasons. His love for Liberto led him to write one of his most popular songs, "I Walk the Line," according to the Los Angeles Times.

The couple met as teenagers in San Antonio, Texas, at a roller skating rink in the early 1950s (via Rolling Stone). Cash was in the U.S. Air Force at the time, and he soon went to serve in Germany. Their courtship continued through letters, including one that came with an engagement ring. The pair reportedly exchanged roughly 1,000 letters during this time. Cash came home from overseas in 1954, and the two married that August. 

Not everyone approved of the couple, however. A photo of Cash and his wife published in 1965 led to questions about Liberto's racial identity, with some people wondering if she was African American. The idea of country star Cash as part of an interracial couple didn't sit well with some white supremacists, per History. And that's when the personal attacks and threats against them started up.

One photo led to attacks by white supremacists

Born on April 23, 1934, Vivian Liberto was Italian American, per History. She attended Catholic school growing up, which reflected her family's commitment to their faith (via SF Gate). She and her husband had four daughters together: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara, according to the Ventura County Star. Their children were still young when the couple found themselves under attack.

In 1965, Johnny Cash was arrested after trying to come back into the United States after buying a large quantity of pills in Mexico, per History. He hid the mix of sedatives and amphetamines in his guitar case, and later plead guilty to drug possession. As part of the media coverage of his case, a photograph of him and Vivian hit the newspapers. A white supremacist group, the National States Rights Party, thought that Vivian was African American based on that image, and they published the photo as part of an article attacking Cash in their own publication.

The couple quickly found themselves the target of intense racially-motivated hatred, and they received death threats. Some tried to hit Cash in the wallet by organizing a boycott against him. The National States Rights Party had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, and many reports about the situation claimed that it was the KKK that was behind the attacks on the Cash family, per History.

Catholic Church angered by divorce

Johnny Cash told his family that he was on the road fighting against the KKK (via History). Both he and his manager thought that the white supremacists might back down if they spoke publicly about Vivian's race, saying that she was white. The attacks only further stressed Cash's marriage, which was already under duress from his drug addiction and his frequent absences. It also didn't help that Cash became involved with June Carter, who would later become his second wife.

Despite her faith, Vivian decided to end her marriage to Cash. Divorce proceedings began in 1966, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the divorce brought Vivian another form of hardship: the Catholic Church went after her publicly for breaking the rules regarding marriage, and even took the extreme measure of excommunicating her, per the "My Darling Vivian" documentary.

Through her four daughters, Vivian stayed somewhat connected to her first husband over the years. Both soon remarried after the divorce — Vivian wed a police officer named Dick Distin and Cash married June Carter (per Los Angeles Times). And although they moved on with their lives, one can only imagine how they remained haunted by the earlier attacks on them by white supremacists.