January 22, 1904 - May 11, 1980
John Beecher, a descendant of the Rev. Lyman Beecher and related to Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was born in New York. His father, an executive with the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, moved the family to Birmingham, Ala., when Beecher was about three. Beecher graduated from high school at age fourteen, and for the next sixteen years alternated between working in the steel mills and taking classes. His experiences in the steel mills inspired him to begin writing poetry. Beecher graduated with an AB in English from the University of Alabama in 1926, completed an MA in English at the University of Wisconsin in 1930, and, in 1933, began graduate studies in sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From 1934 through 1942, Beecher worked for various New Deal government agencies. He also took time off to write, including periods writing for the Birmingham Age-Herald and News and the New York Post. In 1943, Beecher joined the United States Merchant Marine and served two years on the SS Booker T. Washington, the first U.S. ship to have a racially integrated crew. His book All Brave Sailors is about that experience. In 1948, Beecher became an assistant professor of sociology at San Francisco State College but was fired in 1950 for refusing to sign a mandatory loyalty oath. He was awarded a Ford Foundation fellowship to study small farmers in California and, when this ended, he bought and ran a small ranch in Sonoma County.
In 1956, Beecher and his wife Barbara, a graphic artist, started Morning Star Press at the ranch, then moved it to Arizona in 1958 and renamed it Rampart Press. The press printed Beecher's poetry and that of other blacklisted poets. In 1964, Beecher and his wife moved to the Southeast and began actively participating in civil rights activities. He was publicly denounced by Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace for his participation in the Selma to Montgomery March. In 1966, he published To Live and Die in Dixie, a collection of poems about his life in the segregated South. In the late 1960s, the Beechers began traveling around the country, he giving lectures and poetry readings and she selling copies of his books. He also served as poet-in-residence for several institutions (while maintaining a residence in Burnsville, N.C.) and received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1977, Beecher was rehired by San Francisco State College, ten years after the loyalty oath law was determined by the courts to be unconstitutional. He taught there briefly before his death from lung disease in 1980.
John Beecher's poetry is an expression of his political and social activism. His powerful and accessible poems about working people and the disadvantaged make use of common speech patterns and dialect. Some of his work deals with Alabama subjects, including “In Egypt Land,” an epic poem about an Alabama sharecroppers’ union.
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Photo courtesy of NewSouth Books.
Last updated on Jun 03, 2008.