ROBBIE WARD: Starkville failed to break free from its old jail blues

By Robbie Ward | Mississippi State University

STARKVILLE – Talking to people through the years about Johnny Cash’s experiences here, I’ve heard all kinds of stories. One old-timer told me about Cash returning to Starkville to perform a few years after his concert on May 10, 1965, the time when he was arrested for “pickin’ flowers.” Cash – someone never accused of not having a sense of humor – sought out local police officers and gave them tickets to his show.
At this concert, Cash acknowledged his run-in with the Law and everyone smiled and seemed to get a kick out of the Man in Black making nice with the fellows who threw him in the drunk tank, a place where he broke a big toe kicking the steel door.
The story of Cash contacting the police and inviting them to his performance makes for a great tale that includes a little humor and redemption. It’s too bad that I haven’t been able to verify this wonderful anecdote. But it does make for a great story.
This week, I wanted to tell another story about redemption in Starkville, how citizens in this community finally voted to approve an $8.45 million bond referendum to build a new police headquarters. I wanted to tell how symbolic of redemption the plan would be, since the city would build the much-needed facility on the property where Cash was arrested that early morning on May 11 more than 45 years ago.
Having moved back to Starkville in 2003 – the year Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, died – I cannot think of a time in my adult life that this community’s leaders did not discuss the need for better resources for police, the taxpayer-funded part of the city assigned to protecting our city. I remember entering Starkville’s police department for the first time and thinking how beaten and worn the place looked.
As I have gotten to know Starkville Police Chief David Lindley and other professionals dedicated to public safety through the years, I have seen city employees dedicated to making the most of resources they have, like poor kids embarrassed by hand-me-downs they wear but determined to do their best even in their tattered jeans.
Starkville passing this bond to provide adequate facilities for police would have been a great redemption story, especially after the 2006 referendum to build a new police headquarters and city hall failed by a handful of votes.
This story of redemption would have included a small park near the police headquarters, a much-needed green space downtown. We could have named it the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Park, honoring our quirky story of redemption with an American Icon.
This park full of colorful flowers could have helped a tired part of the city in need of a little help, encouraging businesses to open, increasing the quality of life for residents and adding to the Starkville experience when visitors spend time here.
But this story of redemption hasn’t happened yet.
For whatever reason, more than 55-percent of citizens who voted in the referendum decided this plan wasn’t the right one for Starkville. No one argued that the plan didn’t have flaws, but we all know that perfect is the enemy of the good.
Like Johnny Cash giving tickets to those police officers many years ago, not all stories of redemption can be verified. Like Starkville’s referendum this week for adequate police facilities, we often turn our backs on opportunities for redemption.
We all love great stories of redemption. Sadly, they don’t always happen in places we want them the most.
Robbie Ward, a former Daily Journal reporter, has a master’s degree in public policy and administration and created the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival. He blogs at starkvillecityjail.com and can be reached at starkvillecityjail@gmail.com.