Cover

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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Figures

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pp. ix-x

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Preface

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pp. xi-xvi

Few surnames resonate in American history more than Beecher. The family’s abolitionist ministers, educators, and writers are central characters in the historical narrative of the United States. The Beechers’ influence was greatest in the nineteenth century, but the family story continued—albeit with less public attention—with a descendant who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the early twentieth century. John Beecher (1904–1980) never had the public prominence of his...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xvii-xviii

This project was born in the summer of 2005 when I met Barbara Beecher (1925–2016), John Beecher’s widow. During the decades since his death, Barbara’s mission was to ensure her husband’s legacy. Because of her devotion and determination, historians have access to detailed records of John’s life and work. It is only because of Barbara’s tirelessness and willingness to share personal stories, documents, and photos with me that my research for this book has been possible....

I. Generations Playing Their Part

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pp. 1-2

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1. The Beecher Family

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pp. 3-12

In November 1907, three-year-old John Henry Newman Beecher arrived in Birmingham, Alabama. The move to this distant southern outpost, often called the Magic City, allowed his father to keep his job as a steel executive in the midst of that year’s financial panic. Beecher and his parents—he was an only child—left their suburban New York mansion, boarded a private Pullman car, and, after a one-thousand-mile journey, arrived in a grimy train station that the booming industrial city had already outgrown. The social, racial, and religious...

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2. Shaping Forces

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pp. 13-28

Three fundamental forces shaped John Beecher’s life: his ancestral legacy, his parents, and growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the early twentieth century. While the social causes of the nineteenth-century Beechers left their mark, his parents’ influence was even more powerful, both his embrace of it and his rebellion against it. As an only child, he had their undivided attention and support, though in different ways. His father’s high position in the steel industry provided wealth and social prestige, which in turn provided his son with many...

II. Becoming a Twentieth-Century Beecher, 1904–1928

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pp. 29-30

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3. The Education of John Beecher

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pp. 31-51

When the Beechers arrived at the train station in Birmingham in early 1908, it was clear that they were to belong in the city’s privileged class, though their well-known family name and their Roman Catholicism would set them apart even within that class in the coming decades. Many years later, John Beecher described what an observer would have seen when he first set foot in Birmingham: “I clambered from the Pullman in a fur suit and fur leggings, clutching a Teddy bear in each hand. My golden curls cascaded around a fur hat. At my side was...

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4. Becoming a Poet

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pp. 52-62

In the winter of 1923, Beecher began to write poetry. His academic interests had shifted to liberal arts, and he began to embrace literature and language. This allowed him not only to pursue the creativity that he could not find in the sciences but also to bond with his mother around a shared academic interest. At the end of the term, he returned to Birmingham and to his job as a helper on the Number 8 furnace—a job that in the previous summer had inspired him and his...

III. Professional Life, 1928–1955

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pp. 63-64

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5. Experimental College and Sociology Work

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pp. 65-74

During the late summer of 1929, John Beecher received an unexpected opportunity; he was offered a faculty position at the Experimental College, a higher education initiative begun two years earlier at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Though John’s father had paved the way for him to have a prized position as an open-hearth metallurgist in Birmingham a year earlier, he immediately quit and accepted the teaching job. He and his wife, Virginia, and their...

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6. Working the New Deal

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pp. 75-106

Training with Howard Odum and Guy Johnson at the University of North Carolina’s School of Social Work prepared Beecher for the next phase of his life and work. From 1934 until 1943, he worked in various government posts in locations such as Wilmington, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; and Belle Glade, Florida. In his government posts, he consistently attempted to right social wrongs, while federal, state, and local bureaucrats always pushed against him. His frustration would lead him to abandon one post after another and move on ...

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7. The War and Its Aftermath

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pp. 107-126

As the war advanced in Europe, the United States moved to boost its military preparedness. Defense industry jobs expanded, but racial discrimination in hiring was widespread. African American leaders vocalized their concern and argued that the democratic values the nation was willing to fight for abroad should be practiced at home. President Roosevelt was aware of the problem but was caught between two constituencies: emerging black leaders in urban areas and the embedded...

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8. The Loyalty Oath

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pp. 127-138

John Beecher began teaching sociology and creative writing at San Francisco State College in September 1948 and was on track to earn tenure by 1951.1 He was forty-six, and he had made the transition to what he believed would be his last career. In 1947, while still working on the Minnesota Farmer-Labor book, Beecher contemplated his next career move; first and foremost, he wanted to return to teaching. Teaching was a profession that he could settle into at this point...

IV. Poetry and Legacy, 1955–1980

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pp. 139-140

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9. A Small Press of Their Own

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pp. 141-152

In his book, Lectures to Young Men, Henry Ward Beecher said, “A broken man should cling to a courageous Industry. If it brings nothing back, and saves nothing, it will save him.”1 Though the minister was writing to mid-nineteenth-century men, the words would have been sage advice for his great-nephew John Newman Beecher who suffered both professionally and emotionally after losing his job as a professor at San Francisco State College. As Beecher began to write poetry...

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10. Beecher and the Civil Rights Movement

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pp. 153-164

The civil rights movement gave John Beecher a broader audience for his work and brought his ancestral authority full circle. In his reporting for Ramparts magazine, the New Republic, and the San Francisco Chronicle as well as his new poetry, John Beecher’s distinctive voice resonated with a generation of socially conscious young people around the country. In the introduction to Beecher’s Hear the Wind Blow: Poems of Protest & Prophecy, literary critic Maxwell Geismar looked...

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11. The Final Years

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pp. 165-172

After John Beecher left Birmingham in the summer of 1967, he never lived there again. He returned for a brief visit, when he was invited back for a celebration of his life and to be given a key to the city he moved to as a toddler in 1907. Living away from the South, however, never stopped his work for racial and economic justice. And, of course, there was always more writing and teaching to do. He had the trove of poetry he had written over nearly five decades that he hoped would be published as a collection, and there was the autobiography...

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Epilogue

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pp. 173-178

Robert Frost is one of the noted poets who encouraged twenty-oneyear-old John Beecher, “but he told me I ought to quit writing about black folks.” Carl Sandburg “told me my steel mill poems were better than his.”1 Today, Frost’s and Sandburg’s names and poetry are still well known; Beecher’s work is much harder to find. His poetry’s subjects ranged from the poor black men who kept steel mills in Alabama running in the 1920s to the men, women, and children who...

Appendix 1. Beecher Family Tree

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pp. 179-180

Appendix 2. John Beecher’s Published Work

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pp. 181-184

Notes

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pp. 185-212

Bibliography

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pp. 213-222

Index

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pp. 223-229