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John Beecher (22 January, 1904 – 11 May, 1980) was an activist poet, writer and journalist who wrote about the Southern United States during the Great Depression and the American Civil Rights Movement. Beecher was extremely active in the American labor and Civil Rights movements. During the McCarthy era, Beecher lost his teaching job for refusing to sign a state loyalty oath; seventeen years later the California Supreme Court overturned this law in 1967, and he was reinstated in 1977. Beecher's books include Report to the Stockholders, To Live and Die in Dixie, In Egypt Land, and a 1974 Macmillian edition of his collected poems.

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Beecher's early years

John Henry Newman Beecher was born in New York City on January 22, 1904. Beecher's family was descended from New England abolitionists (including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) and his father was a steel industry executive. In 1907, Beecher's father was transferred to Birmingham, Alabama to work for the United States Steel Corporation; as a result of this, Beecher spent the rest of his childhood in the American South.

Beecher's family had intended their son to become an executive like his father. However, as a young man Beecher went to work in the steel mills as a teenager, having graduated from high school at age sixteen. The labor abuses he saw there caused him to become active in labor movement issues. He also wrote a few of the radical activist poems he eventually became known for.

Beecher's later years

Beecher alternated college with working in the steel mills until 1925, when he was severely injured while building the Fairfield Sheet Mill near Birmingham. After recuperating, he entered Harvard Graduate School, then began working at a variety of jobs.

John Beecher's adult life suffered turbulence often. After leaving Harvard, Beecher went to teach at Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College in Wisconsin, where he earned a master's degree in English, then he pursued graduate studies in sociology at the University of North Carolina, where he worked on Howard Washington Odum's voluminous study of the American South, Southern Regions of the United States, published in 1936. From 1934-1941, he worked with the United States government's Emergency Relief Administration in various states across the South. During World War II, Beecher volunteered and served as a commissioned officer of the interracial crew of the troop transport Booker T. Washington and wrote a book about these experiences, All Brave Sailors. After returning from the war, he was commissioned to write a history of populism in Minnesota; the product was published as Tomorrow is a Day.

During the McCarthy era, John Beecher was blacklisted after being fired from his teaching job at San Francisco State University in 1950 for refusing to sign a Levering Loyalty Oath. During the 1950s, Beecher was a rancher and printer, producing privately printed editions and broadsides of his own poetry and a literary magazine called "Morning Star." He also taught at Arizona State University in the late 1950s.

Beecher spent the 1960s primarily as a journalist writing about social injustice, and also as a teacher, while enjoying the renewed prominence of his poetry. As a writer and journalist, he contributed to publications such as The Nation, Ramparts, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times. In 1967, the California Supreme Court repealed the Levering Act (and in 1977, his firing was overturned and he was reappointed to his teaching position).

As of August 1979, Beecher taught full time at San Francisco State. He taught classes in Sociology, Writing, Humanities, and American Literature. [Los Angeles Times, The book Review. Sunday, August 26, 1979, including hand written notes by John Beecher]

John Beecher died of lung disease on 11 May, 1980.

Beecher's writings

Like writers such as Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck who chronicled the massive displacements of the Great Depression and the growth of the American labor movement, Beecher used his books and poetry to address basic human issues such as justice and equality. Unlike these other writers, however, Beecher also addressed racism in his writing, a problem he felt was significant in the pre-Civil Rights Movement South.

Beecher's books of poetry include Phantom City, Report to the Stockholders & Other Poems, To Live and Die in Dixie, In Egypt Land, the 1968 compilation Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest & Prophecy, and a 1974 Macmillan edition, Collected Poems. All are out of print, although a new collection of his poetry, One More River to Cross: The Selected Poetry of John Beecher, was published by NewSouth Books in 2003. In addition to books of poetry, he also published two books of nonfiction: All Brave Sailors, and Tomorrow is a Day, a study of populism in Minnesota.

External links

Bibliography

  • One More River to Cross: Selected Poems, foreword by Studs Terkel, edited by Steven Ford Brown, NewSouth Books, 2003
  • Tomorrow is a Day, Vanguard Books, 1980 (reprint)
  • Collected Poems, 1924-1974, MacMillan, 1974
  • Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest & Prophecy, International Publishers, 1968
  • To Live & Die in Dixie & Other Poems, Monthly Review Press, 1966
  • Undesirables, Goosetree Press, 1964
  • Report to the Stockholders & Other Poems, Rampart Press, 1962
  • Phantom City, Rampart Press, 1961
  • In Egypt Land, Rampart Press, 1960
  • Land of the Free, Morning Star Press, 1956
  • All Brave Sailors: The Story of the S.S. Booker T. Washington, L.B. Fischer, 1945
  • Here I Stand, Twice A Year Press, 1941
  • And I Will Be Heard: Two Talks to the American People, Twice A Year Press, 1940
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