THE NEXT GREAT STEP OF THE WAY: JOHN
BEECHER'S GRASSROOTS POETRY [HUNTERBEAR]
INTRODUCTORY COMMENT BY HUNTER GRAY/HUNTER
BEAR [JOHN R SALTER, JR] January 19 2004.
This article of mine -- commemorating the great
Southern social justice poet, John Beecher and his wife, Barbara -- appeared
initially in SOJOURNERS, the Christian social justice journal, March 1981.
In the spring of 1979, the first edition of
my own book came out, JACKSON MISSISSIPPI: AN AMERICAN CHRONICLE OF STRUGGLE
AND SCHISM. I immediately sent a copy to John and Barbara , and my
inscription read: "For John and Barbara Beecher - Old, firm friends -- the
kind of people who help make the sun shine on the water. With best wishes,
always - John R Salter Jr - May 10 1979."
John Beecher died in May, 1980.
We maintained close contact with Barbara
-- who went back to North Carolina. Eventually their library appeared
at a large Asheville bookstore -- and on ABE. My book was there and the price
was very hefty. When a few weeks passed with no purchasers, we bought it and
it now sits next to the many inscribed books John Beecher sent us over the
THE NEXT GREAT STEP OF THE WAY: JOHN
BEECHER'S GRASSROOTS POETRY [HUNTERBEAR]
A great mountain lifted into the clouds
when John Beecher, American poet of social struggle, died last May in San
Francisco. The scenery is not the same for many of us for whom he was a major
force in connecting hearts and minds with the nonviolent battle for human
I met him for the first time in Arizona in the
fall of '59. It was a bitter time in my home state. From Butte, Montana to
the Mexican border, copper workers were on strike, led by the International
Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Arizona was a bastion of reaction in
those days. Adamant recalcitrance from the huge mining companies backed by
anti-labor judges and lawmen, coupled with a sweeping Federal "Communist
conspiracy" trial of the top Mine-Mill leadership then in session at Denver,
made the hard-rock miners' struggle a flashback to the 1910s.
I was a graduate student in sociology then, at
Arizona State University on the outskirts of Phoenix. Spending far more time
in the field than in classes, I was organizing miners' relief in the
metropolitan area. We were using the excellent Mine-Mill film, SALT OF THE
EARTH, depicting an earlier strike in southwest New Mexico and matters were
getting rough. As soon as we lined up places at which to show the film --
often with the help of Roman Catholic parish priests -- church authorities,
"anti-Communist leagues" and the FBI worked in concert to bar us from schools,
parish halls, and other facilities. Newspapers refused to run our ads, and
cars and houses were mysteriously broken into.
We plugged along and eventually found places
where we could show SALT, distribute literature, and collect strike relief.
At the first showing, hostile police were parked outside, and we studied each
incoming person with an eye toward spotting foes. A large man in his mid-50s
walked resolutely into our hall and took a seat. He had, for the times, a
"Who's he?" asked a friend.
"Damned if I know," I remember saying, "but he
sure isn't from Kennecott or the FBI."
He certainly wasn't.
He came up afterwards and that's when I met
John Beecher, poet and temporary faculty member at Arizona State. We
had little chance to talk then, for the strike relief campaign was off and
running successfully, but he reminded me more of an old-time New England sea
captain than a Santa Claus. His gentleness did not quite mask an obvious
stubbornness as firm as the rocks of Mount Katahdin.
The miners won the strike and, eventually, the
Federal appellate courts threw out the Communist conspiracy charges.
Then, at Arizona State University, our dean of
students, a member of the national council of the John Birch Society,
summarily expelled several undergraduates who had peacefully protested
compulsory ROTC. So we spent the spring of 1960 in a demonstration campaign,
the first conducted by Arizona students in at least a generation, at the
university, at the state capitol, and the business offices of the members of
the board of regents. The ousted students were quickly reinstated and
we immediately focused our efforts toward the elimination of compulsory
military service on the Arizona campuses.
Picketing was hot and tedious and marked by
some harassment. While several faculty members gave us sub rosa encouragement
from the shadows, only John Beecher came forward to join us. He did so with
gusto and enthusiasm. And that's where I got to know him: on the picket
Son of a U.S. Steel executive, John Beecher
told me he'd been born in New York City in 1904 but raised in Birmingham,
Alabama. I was not at all surprised to learn that he was a great great nephew
of the militant abolitionist leader, Henry Ward Beecher, and that he had, as
a youngster, worked 12 hour shifts in steel mills, an experience that had
affected him profoundly.
After his schooling at Virginia Military
Institute, Cornell, and the University of Alabama, John Beecher had traveled,
then taught at Dartmouth and the University of Wisconsin. In the '30s, he had
spent eight years administering New Deal programs in the South, serving low
income whites and blacks. During World War II, he had been stationed aboard
the first racially integrated U.S. naval vessel, the Booker T. Washington.
Out of that came one of Beecher's first major books, ALL BRAVE SAILORS.
Extremely migratory, Beecher rousted about
after the war, then settled at San Francisco State College. But in 1950,
California passed the Levering [loyalty oath] Act and, on principle, Beecher
refused to sign, losing his post. He tried ranching for a time, and he and
his wife, Barbara, started their own press to print his keenly honed poetry
and her incisive abstract woodcut prints. Their work was widely hailed by the
courageous few of the McCarthy era. The Beechers had come to Arizona toward
the end of the '50s.
I had never met anyone like him. I was
fascinated to my core. We didn't eliminate compulsory ROTC -- that victory
came several years later -- but our group, with Beecher's encouragement, did
start the fires burning. And a friendship was forged with John and Barbara
Beecher that gave me, as it did so many others, an enormous amount of inner
strength and direction.
I left Arizona for a year and taught college
in Wisconsin. I heard once from Beecher during that period. The Peace
Marchers, led by the indefatigable A.J. Muste, were marching from San
Francisco to Moscow. Somehow they made it into [and through] Arizona and,
when they came to Arizona State, Beecher simply left his teaching position and
walked off with them for the next several weeks. In Wisconsin, Eldri and I
were married, and we made plans to go into Mississippi to teach at black
Tougaloo College and join the still barely existent civil rights movement in
that murderous citadel.
I saw Beecher briefly in Arizona in the summer
of '61, just before heading South. He had returned from his sojourn with the
march and was focusing exclusively on his poetry. He handed me a copy of his
latest work, IN EGYPT LAND, which vividly depicts the '30s struggle of black
Alabama sharecroppers. We talked for a long time. [Note by Hunter Gray,
January 19, 2004: Beecher inscribed our copy of the book with the kind words,
"To John and Eldri Salter - This true story of the South in the belief you
will help to change these things - John Beecher - 21 August 1961."]
As Eldri and I prepared to leave, John Beecher
gave the only piece of direct advice I ever heard from him: "You're going
into Mississippi. It's the most dangerous place of all. You're going to be
involved very deeply there before it's all over. Remember now, you can do a
lot there if you don't talk too much about it. Just do it. They're going to
know who you are and what you're up to soon enough, but by then you'll have it
I read IN EGYPT LAND many, many times. It
"It was Alabama, 1932
but the spring came
same as it always had.
A man just couldn't help believing
this would be a good year for him. . ."
And led into struggle:
"Then one day
someone told her about the Union . . .
If everybody joined the Union she said
a good strong hand would get what he
a dollar [Amen sister]
instead of fifty cents a day.
At settling time the cropper could take
his cotton to the gin
and get his own fair half and the cotton
instead of the landlord hauling it off
and cheating on the weight. . .
Then the door banging open against the
and the Laws in their lace boots
the High Sheriff himself
with his deputies behind him. . ."
We went into the Deep South and our great
adventure began which culminated at that point in the Jackson Movement of
1963, the first, most massive nonviolent civil rights upheaval in
Mississippi. By then the Beechers were back in California, where John was
poet in residence at the University of Santa Clara. He sent another volume to
us, REPORT TO THE STOCKHOLDERS AND OTHER POEMS, a sharp, multifaceted attack
on bigotry and materialism and a vigorous call for democracy.
Then he sent me a single poem, dedicated to
me, commemorating the Jackson Movement, the Southern struggle, and
the martyrdom of Jackson's Medgar Evers. The conclusion of "One More River to
Cross" looked ahead to the great and never-ending thrust of the grassroots:
"Who knows that some unpainted shack
in the Delta
may house one destined to lead us the
next great step of the way
From the Osawatomie to the "Patowmac"
the Alabama Tombigbee Big Black
Tallahatchie and Pearl
and down to the Mississippi levee in
it's a long road
better than a hundred years of traveling
and now the Potomac again. . ."
I went into full-time civil rights field work
for the next several years, and the Beechers wound up at Miles College, a
small black school in Birmingham. Then I was organizing in other parts of the
country -- Washington, Iowa, Chicago -- and the Beechers were in North
Carolina, Massachusetts, Florida. Now it was the '70s. But there were
always, to Eldri and me, the boldly written postcards, the fiery poems, all
of the expressions against war and injustice, and the ringing affirmations of
liberty and humanity and the creation. He piled wood on our fires at critical
points. Once, in a strongly affirmative letter of reference on my behalf, he
commented: "He wears no man's collar."
And the times were indeed changing. Beecher's
poems were now being published by major houses, Birmingham declared "John
Beecher Day", and TIME magazine joined the multitude of other reviewers who
had poured praise on Beecher's works.
The light was shining from on high but none of
this, of course, changed John or Barbara Beecher one whit. He remained the
stubborn Katahdin-like advocate for humanity and she his no less firm
colleague. In the late '70s, they were back in North Carolina.
Word had come to them some years before that
the California Supreme Court had axed the Levering Act. Now, by special
concurrent resolution of the California legislature, John was offered his
old San Francisco State teaching job. Beecher was ill but his spirit was as
sharp and bristly as it had always been. Principle and justice, he and
Barbara decided, made it mandatory for them to return to the job he'd lost
almost 30 years before.
They went. He began teaching. His illness
worsened and he met his classes in a wheelchair. John Beecher was actively
recording his autobiography and anticipating the fall, 1980 publication of a
book he'd written long before in the unfriendly witch hunting years, TOMORROW
IS A DAY: A STORY OF THE PEOPLE IN POLITICS [Vanguard Press, Chicago] when he
passed into the fog and beyond to join the long string of earlier fighters,
back to the beginning of time.
Not long ago I read one of Beecher's poems to
a class of mine, Navajo Indian college students. To the northwest of our
reservation, up in Utah and Nevada especially, white people are dying as a
result of the illness produced by nuclear testing in the '50s and early '60s.
On the vast Navajo reservation itself, predatory uranium mining companies
have desecrated the earth and set forth a poisonous legacy of radioactivity
that has already led to many Indian bones under the turquoise sky. The class
grew silent as I read "Moloch," written 20 years before:
"Butch Bardoli was just a ranch kid
a tow-head like yours or mine at seven
his pockets full of marbles
pieces of string
a tiny car or plane maybe
he'd got with a box top
Nothing extra about Butch
just the usual sort of small boy
and when the big cloud mushroomed
high into the cobalt desert sky
over the Reveille mountains to the south
he stood in the yard with the six other
who went to the Twin Springs school
and watched with scared eyes
Now Butch Bardoli is dead of leukemia
or cancer of the bloodstream
It was just his hard luck to be born
there in that almost empty part of Nevada
where mountains thirty miles away
seem close enough to touch
and the dust devils whirl
on long hot summer days
As a great man said
"You can't make an omelet without breaking
a man named Nikolai Lenin
not George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or
but we seem to have come over to his way of
it does make a difference though
when it's an egg from your own nest
a beloved son perhaps
that gets broken for the omelet
Somewhere on the desert
a new cross stands
above a very short mound
and still the poisonous mushrooms climb the
over the Reveille range
But Butch Bardoli
sleeps on "
[Initially published in REPORT TO THE
STOCKHOLDERS AND OTHER POEMS. John Beecher had inscribed that copy to our
growing family: "For the Salters - John, Eldri and Maria in friendship and
admiration - John Beecher - June 19, 1962." The poem is included in COLLECTED
The Navajo class continued its silence for a
time after I finished. Then a young woman spoke. "He must have been a holy
man," she said, "to have seen such visions."
Indeed he was. John Beecher was a very holy
When you cut to the bone and cut away the
college degrees, academic and other titles,
published books and articles, ours is essentially a working
class and Indian family. We consistently join unions -- and we always
support them with the greatest vigor.
It's critical to always keep fighting -- and
to always remember that, if one lives with grace, he/she should be prepared to
die with grace.