Alabama poet, journalist, and social activist John Beecher (1904–1980) focused his work on social justice and the rights of working people, especially factory and mill workers and African Americans in the South. His refusal to compromise his beliefs despite opposition from powerful people and institutions often made his life difficult. His poems bore titles such as "To Live and Die in Dixie" and "And I Will Be Heard," and his journalism also shared the stories of oppressed people.
Born on January 22, 1904, to Leonard and Isabel Beecher in New York City and raised in Birmingham, John Beecher was a great, great, great nephew of abolitionists Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the antislavery book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. After his father's transfer to Alabama, Beecher went through Birmingham public schools at an accelerated pace and graduated from high school at age 14. Not yet old enough to enter college, Beecher worked in the mills of the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, where his father was an executive. There, he witnessed for the first time the conditions of working people, who spent long days in harsh environments performing difficult and dangerous labor, an experience that changed his life. Beecher entered the Virginia Military Institute, but he did not like the school's tradition of hazing new cadets and left.
After attending several colleges during the 1920s, Beecher completed his bachelor's degree in 1924 at the University of Alabama. In 1925, he published his first poem, "Big Boy." Beecher married Virginia St. Clair Donovan in 1926, with whom he would have four children; the couple later divorced. (Beecher also had two short-term marriages between 1946 and 1952, before entering into a longer-term union in 1955.) In 1929, he attended the University of Wisconsin, where he taught English and earned a master's degree. He then went to the University of North Carolina to study sociology because of his desire to help poor people in the South. Despite changing career paths, Beecher continued writing poetry. In 1933, he published "Report to the Stockholders," a nine-part poem about the unfair treatment of mill workers. From 1934 to 1942, he worked for the federal government administering various New Deal programs in the Southeast and later in the Southwest. Beecher's activities centered on managing resettlement camps for displaced farmers, both white and black. In 1935, he published an article in Social Forces magazine about a biracial union rebellion in Notasulga, Alabama, that occurred earlier in the decade; it was Beecher's first substantial contribution to sociology. As the Great Depression ended, however, so did Beecher's work with the government. He had become frustrated by this point with the limitations of the federal programs.
During the 1940s, Beecher was writing regularly. In 1940 and 1941, he published two poetry collections that described his frustrations with government efforts: Here I Stand and And I Will Be Heard. In 1943, Beecher volunteered to serve as an officer on the merchant ship SS Booker T. Washington, the U.S. Navy's first racially integrated ship, which served in the European and Mediterranean theaters during World War II. In 1945, after he was discharged, Beecher published All Brave Sailors, a book about his experiences. After the war, he worked as an editor for the Institute on Social Relations and also wrote Tomorrow Is a Day, a nonfiction book about farm labor in Minnesota.
In 1948, Beecher relocated to San Francisco and took a position at San Francisco State University. Two years later, the university blacklisted and fired him for refusing to sign a loyalty oath at a time when the American public was receiving inflammatory news and reports about Communist sympathizers in government and public life. Beecher believed that his service to his country ought to have been enough prove his loyalty. He spent most of the 1950s looking for work; he became a rancher in California and also set up his own printing press to publish his poetry with his fourth wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1955.
Beecher returned to teaching as the era of anti-Communism ended. Residing at times in Arizona and California, he worked as a journalist and editor for various newspapers and magazines and published more poems in addition to his teaching. During the 1960s, Beecher reported on the civil rights movement in Birmingham and other parts of the South for the San Francisco Chronicle. He later returned to Birmingham to teach at Miles College and published To Live and Die in Dixie and Other Poems in 1966. His poetry received additional recognition with the publication of Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest & Prophecy in 1968.
By the 1970s, John Beecher had gained a reputation as a great American poet; he was being published regularly, and he was invited to speak all over the country. He read his poetry at colleges, festivals, and churches all over America. In 1974, he published a volume containing almost all of his poetry, Collected Poems, 1924-1974, and his hometown of Birmingham held a festival in his honor: John Beecher Day. He was reinstated at San Francisco State College in 1977, after a series of lawsuits regarding the 1967 repeal of California's Levering Act. In early 1980, Beecher was invited by First Lady Rosalynn Carter to read his poetry at the White House, but he was too sick to travel to Washington, D.C.
John Beecher died on May 11, 1980, and was buried in Saratoga, California. In the years since his death, Beecher's reputation has declined. Critically, his poetry has received a mixed response. Some writers and critics, including renowned poet William Carlos Williams, have praised his poetry, while others have stated that his verse is poorly written. Regardless of these differing opinions, Beecher's work has rarely appeared in textbooks and anthologies since his death. In 2003, a new book of his poetry was released: One More River To Cross: Selected Poems of John Beecher.
His most famous quotation is "Strength is a matter of a made up mind," a line from one of his poems, "Reflections of a Man
Who Once Stood Up For Freedom." John Beecher found his power in always doing what he believed was right, no matter the consequences.
Selected Works by John Beecher
And I Will Be Heard: Two Talks to the American People (1940)
Here I Stand (1941)
All Brave Sailors: The Story of the S.S. Booker T. Washington (1945)
Land of the Free (1956)
In Egypt Land (1960)
Phantom City (1961)
Report to the Stockholders & Other Poems (1962)
To Live & Die in Dixie & Other Poems (1966)
Tomorrow is a Day (1967)
Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest & Prophecy (1968)
Collected Poems, 1924-1974 (1974)
One More River to Cross: Selected Poems (2003)
Booker T. Washington Magnet High School, Montgomery, Ala.
Published March 27, 2009
Last updated July 25, 2011