John Beecher (1904–1980) may be best known for his distinguished lineage--he was great-great nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher--and for his radical poetry, but his life had many trajectories. In addition to being a poet, he worked as a steel mill worker, an administrator for the New Deal program, an officer on the integrated ship SS Booker T. Washington, a sociologist, writer, journalist, teacher, professor, civil rights activist, rancher, small press publisher, and editor. He participated in and witnessed many events that paralleled many of America’s most challenging periods. Born in New York City but raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Beecher grew to detest the South and couldn’t wait to flee what he viewed as a culture of arbitrary brutality and violence. In his later years, he became fascinated with the region; between 1964 and 1966, Beecher took a leave of absence from Santa Clara University, where he was poet-in-residence, to report on the South and the Civil Rights movement as correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle and Ramparts magazine. There are over 300 recordings in the Beecher collection, but of particular interest are field recordings he made in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana during the civil rights era. He interviewed victims of racial crimes and civil rights workers, and recorded community meetings, including a press conference with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after the 1966 Alabama Democratic Primary.
These recordings were digitized from reel-to-reel audio tapes found throughout his papers and are just a small sample from the collection. Beecher used these recordings in particular as research and source material, and they form the basis of his articles in Ramparts magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, and other publications. His wife, Barbara, accompanied Beecher and contributed to his work in many ways. She was often in charge of the recorder and can frequently be heard asking questions, making comments, and even responding with an “Amen” to a sermon at a Mississippi church service. In addition, she often took photographs of Beecher and other civil rights workers and documented the people, work, and violence in the region.
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