The People in Black

When I was a young teenager I had an AM transistor radio, and I listened to country music. I remember hearing Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black.” (I can’t give you a direct link, but if you go to, click on the picture, then click on the new page click “Menu” in the upper left-hand corner, then “Audio” and choose #17, you can hear the song.) I remember liking it a lot — it was the kind of anthem that appealed to me, making a social and moral point. (Even despite the Jesus part, which is outside my tradition.) So I always had a warm spot in my heart for Johnny Cash.

Well, this morning I learned some more, from Alan Chartok, during the WAMC fund drive. I vaguely knew that I’d seen Johnny Cash wearing black, but Alan made the connection: This song was about himself. It wasn’t a fictional voice in the song, singing “I wear the black for the poor and beaten down / … I wear the black for those who’ve never read / … But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, up front there ought to 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 mourning for the lives that could have been: each week we lose a hundred fine young men” — it was Cash himself explaining why he personally wore black. Alan said that he said he’d wear it until things started to get better.

And apparently, after Pete Seeger was blacklisted, Johnny Cash absolutly insisted that Pete be invited to perform on his show. What a delight, to learn more about someone who was mainstream, and popular, and apparently used his success and popularity to remind us of what we needed to remember.

In Israel, Women in Black have been standing on corners, beginning in Jerusalem but it has spread throughout the country, in protest of the Occupation. From the web page hosted by the Israeli organization “Coalition of Women for Peace“:

    The international movement of Women in Black began in January 1988, one month after the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) broke out, as a small group of Israeli women carried out a simple form of protest: Once a week at the same hour and in the same location – a major traffic intersection – they donned black clothing and raised a black sign in the shape of a hand with white lettering that read “Stop the Occupation”. Within months, by word of mouth, women throughout Israel had heard of this protest, and launched dozens of vigils.

Then it spread throughout the world, not as an organization but as a movement: Women in many countries (I counted 32) now protest and draw attention to whatever local (or international) injustices are important to them. They’re there, standing in black, not necessarily silent (not in Israel, anyway!), reminding people of what they otherwise might overlook.

“Till things are brighter, I’m the man” — the ben/bat adam, the human being — “in black.”