- “A Twentieth-Century Abolitionist”:John Beecher’s Plainspoken Poetry
No compromise is possible under the present circumstances. Either the principle of “equal justice under law” applies to every part of the Union, or it will soon apply to none.—John Beecher, “Their Blood Cries Out” (1963)
With the exception of the legal clue “equal justice under law,” one can be excused for thinking that these Garrison-like words come from the antebellum period amid its stark moral and political choices. However, they actually appeared in a speech that John Henry Newman Beecher (1904-1980) gave as the keynote speaker at a rally in San Jose, California on Sunday, September 29, 1963, two weeks to the day after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham killed four young black girls and rocked the nation. Beecher, born in New York City but raised from the age of three in Birmingham, was the son of Leonard Thurlow Beecher (a converted Roman Catholic and steel-company executive); grandson of Frederick William Beecher (the noted Unitarian-turned-Episcopal minister); and great-grandson of Edward Beecher (one of Lyman Beecher’s eleven children including Henry Ward Beecher, and of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe).
Beecher’s boyhood and schooling in the South exposed him firsthand to virulent examples of racism. Teased and sometimes physically abused for being a so-called Yankee, Beecher lived in an unreconstructed South with a resurgent Ku Klux Klan movement and strict segregationist codes. His closest friend was Rob Perdue, an older black teenager who worked for the Beecher family and taught Beecher about the grim (and also joyful) realities of African American life. Beecher recalled,
From Rob, I learned about the convict mines where men were kept shackled, put into sweat boxes, spread-eagled and lashed with lead-loaded thongs. Sometimes they were beaten to death by murderous “trusties” and their bodies thrown down old shafts. [Tennessee Coal & Iron] had 500 of these convicts working its mines when we came south in 1907. According to a Southern-born Yale historian the average lifespan of a convict in an Alabama mine of that period was six months.(qtd. in Smith 53)
Knowledge that Jim Crow depended not just upon social segregation but also upon economic exploitation and sheer violence sparked Beecher’s activist consciousness as a young man. As he later noted of that unavoidable heirloom Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “The book affected me most not because a Beecher had written it but because it corroborated the contemporary social evils which Rob Perdue was describing to me. It seemed to me that there was a lot of emancipating still needing to be done. Between them, Rob Perdue and Mama made a Twentieth Century Abolitionist out of me” (qtd. in Smith 54).
Despite a high-profile public life of some fifty years as a writer and civil rights activist, few have written about Beecher and few know of his primary vehicle of literary expression: poetry.1 In part, this neglect stems from scholars who have viewed the Beecher family as a nineteenth-century phenomenon, and until recently, have construed the religious and sentimental discourses in which Beecher family members trafficked as somehow cleanly eclipsed circa 1900 by an incipient modernism.2 John Beecher’s famous family and his own politically outspoken poetry have obscured [End Page 339] him as both an historical figure and a poet publishing against the grain of literary modernism. Even Cary Nelson, a critic deeply knowledgeable of leftist poetry, arguably gives Beecher less than his due in two essential books on the subject, and literary scholars and historians of the “long” civil rights movement (such as Lawrence P. Jackson and Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore) fail to mention him in their richly researched work. Ironically, given the centrality of his family in debates about race, abolitionism, temperance, women’s education, and moral reform, a twentieth-century Beecher remains triply obscured: as the most wide-ranging reformist in the Beecher/Stowe family; as a Southern civil rights activist; and, as an antiestablishment poet whose creative output occurred across fifty years.
In this essay I interweave a biographical description of Beecher’s life with an analysis of the...