Interview with Kathy [no last name] and John Beecher
BROADCAST: Apr. 1, 1965 | DURATION: 00:54:23
Interviewing in Montgomery, Alabama, with Kathy and John Beecher [Beecher program begins at 28:29] (part 4).
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Two conversations, a young girl living in the South, a man of the prime of life who describes himself as an ex-Southerner. We'll hear first from the young girl who is a neighbor. She's a neighbor of my hostess through whose courtesy, good offers, and encouragement, most of these interviews happened. We call her Katherine, that's her real name though, she's known as Terry. And the conversation goes as follows. Oh, I must describe the situation. I had come in--this particular conversation took place during the last part of the rally at the steps of the Capitol at Montgomery. This, I would guess now, trying to recall, about 4:00 in the afternoon of Thursday, or 3:30 or so. Of course, Dr. King was still speaking. In fact, I heard the last part of the speech on TV at the home of my hostess and the girl was there, about 3:30 in the afternoon, Thursday, March 25th, 1965. [pause in recording] Such a variety of opinion I have received from white Southerners, particularly white Southerners, and we talk God knows often enough that the tension that was in the air before the parade began and during it on the sidelines. And the home of my host, there are several visitors here today just sitting about. They saw my Martin Luther King's Speech on TV. You yourself, you've been in the South. You've been in the South most of your life, haven't you?
Kathy About 12 years of it, and that's the majority of it, of my life. And the rest of my life I spent mostly in the West where I came in contact with Negroes and Indians, attended school with them and got along with them quite nicely. And I'm considered very liberal down here. I suppose I'd be considered liberal anywhere. But I can attribute this mostly to my parents. I'm kind of a second generation [unintelligible] and they were born and bred in the South and I think they did a tremendous thing by overcoming what they heard at home. They were the ones--there's a generation of people now, the generation before me, that already believe and are teaching their children. Now I'm the children, I haven't done anything particularly spectacular. It's just what I heard at home and what I've experienced living in other parts of the country.
Kathy Oh, I think that the feelings they have of prejudice have diminished quite a bit except when you run into these nuts that go around waving Confederate flags and say "the South shall rise again". But Mr.--our host has told me that his grandfather who fought in the Civil War was not rabid by Northern terms at all and he said that 10 Southerners could not lick 100 damn Yankees, and he was very realistic about the South. And the generation following those that fought in the Civil War were the ones that started bringing up this big myth, and as Dr. King said in his speech, they started eating Jim Crow because they were--this was ravaged down here by the Reconstruction. And I think that during the Depression, some of this started wearing off a little bit, around about there. And people don't feel as they did. I have not talked to anyone who will--I don't know how they really feel underneath, but they know it is wrong to say "no, the Negroes can't vote because they're Black". They won't say that. They'll say "well, I don't think anybody white or Black illiterate should be able to vote". Now this means Negroes shouldn't vote because most of them are illiterate by the hands of their white oppressors. But I have not met anyone that will say "no, I hate someone because they're Black".
Studs Terkel This is--how did your parents--I suppose they must have told you this. How did your parents get that way? In other words, why is their attitude different than that of your grandparents, their parents?
Kathy Well, I think my father was enlightened by Army life. Now this didn't happen with everyone else, but I think that my father is inclined to be enlightened anyway. I think there are people that want to know the truth. He's a newspaperman and he was always interested in journalism and he just kind of looked at things objectively like newspaper people should. And he married my mother when she was quite young and I--she got most of her ideas and views from him. She was indoctrinated by him in a way. And then when I came along, I just was not taught to hate like so many other people are down here.
Kathy I think a very small part, really. But it's larger than it was. It's still small, but it just--it's larger than it was, this percentage. I just--I can go around and talk to people, like the newspapermen from the North come down here and I don't think they're trying to distort news, but they just don't get the insight that a person that lives down here does. And the people I've talked to, some of my husband's friends parents, are--they're not exactly what you would call barbaric by any means and they don't--I can't believe that if everybody in the South were a barbarian, that things would have gone off as well as they did. I think there would have been more violence. My family on my father's side comes from Selma, Dallas County, a little small community, farming community, out from Selma. And the people there I've noticed feel this more deeply because they're poorer out in the country than they are here. I think it just goes back to if you're white, by God you're luckier than him because he's Black, hate him. You know, this is what people are taught.
Kathy I think that's true. And I think in the cities you're finding it much milder. The climate towards this sort of thing is much milder because it's hurting business, it's hurting industry, people don't want this. Besides that, they've got their own families to look after and they want to be able to walk on the streets and feel safe and they just--they're not that interested anymore. You know, this is something where they-- it's kind of a defeated attitude in a way. But at least, I mean, they don't care anymore. If they want to march to the Capitol, these people don't care.
Kathy My husband feels pretty much as I do. But as far as his friends are concerned, no. The only friends I have that feel as I do is our host and hostess who I was brought up next door to from my childhood. I think my parents were very lucky to move next door to them because they had somebody that felt like they did and it was accidental, you know.
Kathy Well one time I got very upset and just walked out in a late hour and I've learned that if--to control my temper. I'm very--I get angry very easily and I try and tell them that the Black man is not inferior. I try and tell them that this country was founded on taxation without representation. They hated this and this is what is happening to the Negroes. This isn't right. And then they start getting very angry. I never get angry until they do though, and I did walk out of a house once. But I've learned to control my temper and if things start getting a little loud and boisterous, I just stop talking.
Studs Terkel Do you, tell me, during these parties, feeling as you do and being--you and your husband being the only ones, and you particularly who feel this way, do you bring--who brings up the subject?
Kathy Well, I suppose a couple of times I have said something, but most of the time the conversation veers around to the racial situation in the South right now and especially this state because it's centered here, and you just can't avoid it. They come here and they talk about it. And it gets brought up and I hear somebody say something that's just terribly stupid and prejudiced and even cruel. And I just can't stop and just let them go by with it. I have to try and correct them.
Studs Terkel I've heard two views now about parties of the sort of white Alabamans. One said the subject is never discussed. And you are saying and [unintelligible] somehow inevitably during a party, the conversation veers to it.
Kathy Well, is there an age difference? There might be. I think with the older people, they--young people can get mad at each other and make up easier than the older people can. I think most of the parties that I go to are between the ages of say, 19 to 25, people that age. And they can get very angry at each other and make up, so they don't feel like it's any, you know, I think in a way that they're much more aware of what's going on too than the older people. You know, I'm not--I don't know exactly how to explain that. Well, they are more sophisticated than their parents, I believe. And although they may be indoctrinated in this segregationist view, I think they are even questioning themselves. And it's--I think it gets brought up because of that. I think they want to talk about it. And that's why it comes into parties of younger gatherings, you know, younger people.
Kathy I think so. Because no one has ever told me to shut up. They always want to argue with me and sometimes I can get them to concede a lot and then they're standing on nothing. They don't have any legs left and then they'll just stop, you know, and they have this funny look on their face. If they don't get angry, if they're not really rabid or something, I can get people to the point where they have no answer for me.
Kathy I think this has been brought to their attention by what's happened. You cannot live down here and see that things are right and nothing's wrong. I think their consciences are bothering them. I mean, this is what--they're Southerners. Now, I'm a Southerner too and I'm glad I'm a Southerner and I'm proud of it, and they are too. But they cannot--they can be proud of the Southern heritage and all that, and yet they have to sit back and look at what the South has wrought in a lot of ways. And when you're proud of something, you're very careful in observing it, I think. If you had a pretty new dress, you'd look at it a lot longer. And I think it's the same with the South. These people, these young people especially, I can speak mostly for them, are just looking at the thing they love because they do love it and they start wavering in their convictions.
Studs Terkel Sure.
Kathy Well, I think that they're more sophisticated than their parents, that they have heard more. The situation has been brought to them in a more unprejudiced way because it--you hear Huntley and Brinkley every night and you read A.P. from other parts of the country and things are happening where they get the view from all over the country. And I think it starts like this, maybe we're wrong and they're right. And then they start examining the South. And I think that all Southerners take great pride in the fact that they're Southerners. I've been out of the South a good part of my life, not the majority of it, but a good part of it. And I've always taken exceptional pride in the fact that I was from the South, and I think that most of us do this and we love the South dearly. We have more of a kind of a provincial view towards the part of the country where we're from. And I think when you love something so dearly, you examine it closely like a new dress. A girl that has a new dress will take time and look at it. If I buy a new dress and I like it, I'll lay it on the bed and look at it for a while. I think that young people are doing this with the South. They love it. But I think they see that there's something wrong with it underneath. Maybe they're turning it over this way and that way and I think that they really realize that there's something wrong with it.
Kathy It's--I hate to say it, but it's really astonishment. Somebody's hit them with something they can't answer. Maybe when they're going home, they can think up all kinds of ridiculous answers to it. Some of them will make a joke. They'll get this look and then they'll make a joke. But they can't answer a lot of questions. They'll say--they'll sit there and after everything else is exhausted, they'll say, "But we're better. The Black man's inferior. He's mentally inferior." I say, "Where did you get this information?" They'll say, "Well I read in such and such a magazine, some doctor said so." And I said, "Well, do you know anything about the doctor? Other people have said that there's no difference." I said, "It's very controversial." And they say, "No, it's true." I said, "Well how can you prove it?" And then they'll just sit there with this kind of astonished look on their face. It's--I think they're surprised because they have no answer for that. They can't do it.
Kathy Or they make a joke. They get angry with me or they make a joke. Of course when they get angry, most of these people--my husband and I have a very small circle of friends. We're not very gregarious and most of them I've gotten to know pretty well. I've known them well enough. I started out having violent arguments with them, but it's just, you know, it's not something that I've gotten to the point where I can argue with them nicely or something. But they don't seem to hold my feelings against me, which I'm sure if their parents knew how I felt, their parents probably wouldn't like me in the house. But they even hide this from their parents protecting me, you know, and this is strange. [laughing] They don't agree with me and yet they're going to protect me.
Studs Terkel They're the smarter of the generations. There was a barber I talked to on the streets [unintelligible] the other night. He said almost the same thing. His father would have been rabid. He doesn't like what's happening, very tolerant. But he said his child will be more enlightened than he. He said it in his own way. You're saying identical things, really.
Kathy Yes, I think this is another thing people are afraid of. The real root when you get down to it is that they're afraid of intermarriage and a mixed race in this country. Now this is something. I can't explain why they're afraid of this. I don't know why. Maybe I think deep down in me, I don't want this to happen because the seeds are sown pretty deep in me even though I had such a liberal home. I've been exposed to "this is wrong, intermarriage". And this is what's really bothering them, and I think that they'll crawl back into a shell because they realize that their children are going to be much more liberal than they are on this question, just as they are more liberal than their parents. And it's going to keep on going until it results in friendships between Negroes and whites and marriages and they're afraid of this. They're deathly frightened of it.
Studs Terkel You think integration, I sense something else, that integration would be accepted, that as a fait accompli, would be accepted by many were it not for their fear of others labeling them, or reprisal in another way, the fear of what someone else may think of them?
Kathy I think this is true to some extent because I can--when I get maybe one of them like we're--just one of our friends are going either to Chamber Music Society or something like that with us or going to a movie and we'll be talking about it. I don't talk about this all the time. You must understand, it sounds like I'm going out and starting a crusade with myself as the only crusader. No, this just comes into the conversation and I talk with them and they always are much less conservative and angry and rabid if they are with me and not in a crowd. I think they're afraid to be labeled one way or another. Now I've been labeled. I don't know what they're afraid of because they all speak to me still, and they're very polite and they're very nice and I know that they really do like me, so I don't know what they're really afraid of. But they are, they are afraid of being labeled.
Kathy I don't think anybody really thinks I'm a kook. They think I'm a little bit emotional. Maybe they do think I'm a kook, but they like me. I don't think they have any disrespect for me because of my views or anything. And, I mean, the word "kook" implies somebody is crazy and you can't listen to what they're saying.
Kathy Oh yes, indeed. When I went to a memorial service in Selma for Reverend [Rebe?], I came back to our host and hostess's house and my husband and one of his best friends picked us up. And his best friend said to me, "Now, we're going over to my house, but don't tell my parents where you were today." [laughing] You know, this sort of a thing, and he wouldn't tell his parents. And the funniest thing is later his mother, who's a very sweet lady, one of the kindest people I've ever met, brought up the subject of all this and she said that what was going on down here, people were just being cruel to the colored people. She's a very simple woman. She didn't--she's not an intellectual by any means, but she saw that there was something wrong going on. She saw that--she said that she didn't want Goldwater for president. She wanted Johnson for president and all her friends got mad at her. Well, why? You know, and she's very simple. And she--I don't think that her son knew that she felt this way. I don't think they'd ever really discussed it because I think he was afraid to bring it up.
Studs Terkel What do you sense about his mother? She being this woman who has a sense of right and wrong, of basic morality, would probably accept it. Though the son is unaware of this since they have never talked about it themselves.
Kathy Well, this particular boy that I'm talking about happens to be one of the most liberal of them I know. He puts his foot down at intermarriage and mixed races and that's about it. Now he's a senior in college and he's studying scientific subjects and he plans to go on and get his Ph.D. And he has gotten ahold of some of these kooky [unintelligible] who say that the Negroes are inferior and he agrees with this wholeheartedly, but he believes--he's very patriotic I think, and he believes that they ought to be given all the rights that the whites have. And he has brought up himself at parties without my even saying a word. Somebody would say, "Well why do they want to go to our schools? We've got schools for them. We built them, look at them. Such and such a school is better looking than the white school over here for the white children." He says, "Well, they don't have the--they're not as well accredited. They need to go to better accredited schools." Now even he will come up with this. And yet he was--I don't know why his mother--he and his mother had never gotten together because they feel pretty much the same way. But he thinks that she's really rabid and she's a very sweet lady. I don't know why [laughing] he should feel that way at all.
Kathy Well, when all this started happening, I went out very early this morning to buy a loaf bread for breakfast. And I saw a National Guardsmen on the streets and out on a corner in a residential section and everything was so quiet. It was a deadly still and it was so intense. I don't know exactly how to describe it, but it was so different. I've been getting up every morning and going places and walking on the streets and I've never experienced anything like this. And I went home and sat down and waited for the marchers to come on television. I sat there and I watched them. And I had a sense of everything's changing more strongly than I've ever felt anything in my life. Here were this mass demonstration on the steps of the Capitol of Alabama. This was just amazing. And I felt a kind of sense of grief for these people because they're so--the people that are die--died in the [whole?] segregationist because this is just their way of life disappearing. And they're terribly confused and very scared, I think, and I really feel sorry for them. And that's about all I have to say.
Studs Terkel I was thinking after you said this. Let me just tell you about two things and your--perhaps your comments about this. A fellow returned to Montgomery, white guy, Selma, a newspaperman, Southern [unintelligible], Southern Alabama newspaper station. He naturally was furious and hurt by what was happening. He never dreamed that he'd ever live to see this day, and an old Negro woman on the parade, interviewed her, an old woman [worked?] out. She said, "I never dreamed I'd live to see this day." They used the very same phrases, almost same phrases, yet they're two wholly different points of view.
Kathy That's--these people are accustomed, the white people, are accustomed to a way of life that has disappeared today. They have been exposed so much in this one day to the fact that the Negroes are not going to stay in their kitchens anymore. They're not going to say "yessa boss" and "nosa boss", and they have thrived on this for decades. And all of a sudden it's going to be gone, poof, just like that. And they're frightened. They don't know what's coming next. This is the South. This is--it all goes back to fact that they love the South, but they don't realize that they have been living off other [unintelligible] in a very evil way. They have been keeping them down so that they could keep them in servitude. I think they're just scared to death. They don't know what's coming next. They're just scared, that's all.
Kathy I think it'll be business as usual, but everybody will experience a kind of sense of loss that even I did in a small way. You can take the girl out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the girl. I've experienced a sense of loss because when I was born, it was in the last days of the old South. It was before all the demonstrations and the people rising up against this began, and I can remember when I was a little girl, it was kind of [lazing?]. The afternoons seemed hotter and the Negro people were so picturesque. And it'll--business tomorrow is going to go on as usual, but people are going to remember this and they're going to, you know, feel regret that it's gone even though that all this lovely, lovely life was at the expense of a whole race. They're going to miss it. It's very selfish, but I think that's the way it's going to be.
Kathy No, not possible. I would have marched, except I don't want my husband to get disowned by his in-laws, or my in-laws, his family because he depends on them right now to a large extent financially. And he's going to be a musician. He's planning to be a composer. And I think he's very fine, but he's not going to be able to do this without their financial help and I don't want to put his future in jeopardy by getting in all this. I don't have just myself to think of. I have him to think of too.
Kathy Oh yeah, it's reprisal. You--I--if my in-laws knew what I was doing right now, they'd probably disown him. They're really exceptionally bad though. I mean, they're exceptionally conservative and very diehard segregationist.
Kathy Well to tell you, the truth is they have never met, never once. When my husband and I got married, we eloped. So they have never met. They know that my, of course, that my father is--I think most people in town know that he's one of the most liberal newspapermen here. It's pretty well known. He's not exactly liberal. My father is very intelligent and he sees that there are wrongs on both sides. He knows that everything that the people that came down here to march did was not right. He knows that there were a lot of, well, that there's no black and white on either side. You know, that the Black people are white as far as morality goes and that the white people are Black as far as all this goes. He's very open minded, and they know this about my father, my in-laws do. But they seem to take it in stride. They'll make some remark about somebody who they consider communist. Everybody that doesn't agree with them is a communist. You'll run into this all over the South. And a lot of these people I have--they are very important people, VIPs, but I met them through my father's and mother's friends. And then, of course, my father being a newspaperman, it's been easier.
Kathy I remember when I was a child. Not real well because it wasn't any big thing. I don't remember--it's not a vivid memory because it was just no big thing like it would be these days. I used to play with Negro children, yes, and I didn't think they were so terrible or that they smell bad. That's what everybody says, you know, the Negroes are supposed to smell bad. Well, we played all day and they didn't smell any worse than I did. [laughing] And it was just, you know, I played with them and that was all.
Kathy Oh no, this happened I think when the bus boycott began. And people have--the people that were a little bit towards the segregationist, just a little bit over the edge of what would be considered sane by my standards anyway, they started really going bad and the tension tightened up. People didn't used to pay any attention to things like they do now. They--what would be a big incident now wouldn't have been an incident at all then.
Studs Terkel Thank you very much. [pause in recording] Another look at the South from John Beecher. You'll hear him describe himself as an ex-Southerner. Perhaps I should describe John Beecher. The girl, gentle, delicate, pretty. John Beecher, long white beard, virile figure, looks much like a Walt Whitman in the 40s. But the only way I could describe him, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, both his family antecedents. [pause in recording] We think of the abolitionists of another century. We think of the eloquence of--among them, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Henry Ward Beecher. There's a John Beecher. I guess it must be in the genes. John Beecher, an abolitionist of our day. But he's an editor, one of the editors of a remarkable new journal in our midst. Thank goodness, "Ramparts", that we talk about on occasion. And I suppose the first thing to ask John Beecher is the event, we're in Montgomery in 1965, your thoughts, I suppose, that come to you at the moment today and impact.
John Beecher Well, I've just returned from the Capitol, where I marched from the outskirts this morning in the most moving parade that I've ever taken part in in my life. Through the dilapidated Negro sections of Montgomery first where we saw the people coming out of their shacks and their tumbledown homes, hanging out of they windows of their substandard schools. Making the "V" sign for victory and applauding us on, joining in the songs. For me, this was a marvelous experience. And even without the speeches which came at the end, one felt victory in the very atmosphere of the march itself. They--there were about 50,000 all total in this march, which far surpassed any prior estimates of what it would be. There were people, of course white and Black, from all over the United States and from foreign countries. It was a really spiritual experience. It's hard to talk about it factually. Myself, I was brought up in this state. And in fact--
John Beecher Well, in a sense. In a sense, I was not born here and you aren't really an Alabaman I suppose unless you're born in this state and I was brought down here when I was three years old by my father who was a general officer of the United States Steel Corporation subsidiary in Birmingham. I was brought up in Birmingham. I worked in the steel mills there. And I'm even a graduate of the University of Alabama. And I went away to other institutions, graduate work and so on in the North. I taught in New England. I taught at Dartmouth. I taught at the University of Wisconsin. I was in Europe for a time and then I returned and lived in the South during the New Deal period. And I wound up in my own hometown of Birmingham, and in 1942 I was the Regional Director for the original FEPC, the Fair Employment Practice Committee.
John Beecher For the South. Yes. And I was in charge of arranging public hearings in June 1942 on discrimination at which for the first time, white employers were haled before the, so to speak, bar of justice and made to account for their practices, white employers and white union leaders, by Negroes. This was '42. Well, this set off such a reaction that I was more or less through so far as living and working in the South was concerned, and then I went off on a ship in the war which had a Negro captain. And I served as one of the officers of the ship and wrote a book about it.
John Beecher Hugh Mulzac. That's right. That was the Booker T. Washington and we served in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean war zones. Well I wrote a book about the ship which kind of finished cooking my goose in the South, if it were necessary for me to compound my crimes any further. So following the war, I did not return to the South. But only last year, I came back as a correspondent for "The San Francisco Chronicle" and spent about six months writing for "The Chronicle" and some of the national magazines. And I returned to my job at the University of Santa Clara in California where I was poet in residence, and I have just resigned that position. Just effective at the end of the current winter term so that I can devote all my time to writing. And I expect to spend a great deal of my time in the South from now on.
Studs Terkel I suppose it's a pretty obvious question for me ask you about your poetry itself. Perhaps a--who knows, a poem concerning the occasion directly, indirectly, but imminent poet too, John Beecher. How you, I suppose the obvious question, how you got this way. There is your distinguished ancestor.
John Beecher Well, of course, I was brought up in Birmingham and I was exposed to this kind of brainwashing that a white child gets in Birmingham. I went to the white schools. However, I was conscious of my Beecher heritage because my grandfather and grandmother lived with us. When I was small, my grandfather taught me to read. And they were very steeped in the family tradition. And they made me most conscious of it. And then to when I first came down at the age of three, I was considered to be a Yankee and I was made to suffer for it. And so I decided early that I was a Yankee and proud of it and I would stay a Yankee. I consequently never even got a Southern accent, as you can tell. But--so I was quite conscious of my identity and I used to say when I'm 21, I want to get out of this region which I detest and live in the North in free country. I never liked what was done to the Negroes. And as far back as I can remember, I felt that I identified with them. And this, I suppose, is a peculiarity because of my upbringing, the fact that I was, you know, the only person of Yankee background in my neighborhood and school. And also because of my family and my tradition that I remained conscious of through my grandfather and grandmother particularly.
John Beecher No, he was the nephew of Henry Ward Beecher, and Henry Ward Beecher had married my grandfather and grandmother. In fact, my--his father was the original abolitionist in the family, Edward Beecher, whose biography I think is due to appear next year. He's been a sort of neglected figure, but he was the founder of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society and the first president of the first college in the state of Illinois. And we almost got it with Lovejoy in 1837 at Alton and wrote the first book on the Alton Riots.
Studs Terkel So there's the family heritage, yet the same time in conflict with something called the Southern heritage. You said something about you want to get out of the South. And yet our host and other enlightened Southerners have spoken of the South as once being the cradle of enlightenment, you know, the Jeffersonian South, that there is still something here buried and--that once was something.
John Beecher Well, I suppose so. I was not conscious of any particular culture in the South or any heritage that was heritage of callousness and brutality. As a child, I disliked it. As an adult, I became more and more fascinated with the South and with the hope of doing something about it. But, for example, part of my education in the South was a year and eight days at the Virginia Military Institute where I went at the age of 15 and was there when I was 15 and 16. And where I became acquainted with a very, very brutal sort of system of hazing and so on which reinforced my distaste for the Southern pattern of arbitrary brutality and violence, which reached its finest flower at the Virginia Military Institute which was Stonewall Jackson's School.
Studs Terkel You know, there's something you say here that's fascinating, the brutality then--not somehow if there's a [unintelligible] people toward a Negro, that brutality must extend itself to someone else of the same skin who may be different, who may be not conforming to the norm.
John Beecher I was quite conscious as a child of the difference between the Northern and the Southern patterns because I had relatives in the North. I would visit in the North. From the age of 11, I went to camp in the North, camp at a military school at the Culver Military Academy, which certainly wasn't any softy sort of camp. But I found the Northern boys to be so much more rational and gentle than the Southern boys. I had been brought up being given a Southern training. I had been brought up to fight every day. And we had a kind of pecking order in the neighborhood and we had to constantly test one another to see just exactly where we fitted in this order. And there was a worship of force and violence and many other things. I hope someday to write an autobiography in which I can bring this out. It's very easy to oversimplify under these circumstances. But certainly violence.
John Beecher Well, you know, that seemed to be the way it was as I was growing up. And tied into this violence and this constant fighting, an emphasis on excellence in physical sports, and particularly physical sports involving bodily contact. Boxing, wrestling and so on, football. There was a tremendous emphasis on sex in the South, which I found on going north, the boys were quite different. They had not received this rather, what seemed to me a kind of a premature awakening in these matters. I know that I found when I went off to--finally went off to Cornell to college that I was much more annoying and experienced in these matters than the other freshmen members of my fraternity. I suppose I learned about the facts of life when I was about five. It was in a neighborhood where there was a sort of dominant family, and of course there was a good deal of mixing with Negro girls on the part of the boys in this neighborhood. In the grammar school where I went, for example, it was surrounded by woods. And there was a path in the woods where the Negro girls would go home from school and some of the big boys still in grammar school, mind you, would hide beside the path and assault these girls on the way home from school. And in this way, they became quite precocious in these matters. Later on, I worked--
John Beecher Yes, this was considered to be quite a triumph. Later on when I went out to the steel mills, I was expelled from the Virginia Military Institute after eight days of my second year there for refusing to be a stool pigeon against my roommates in a hazing case. And they were brought up on the charge. This is a typical Southern performance, I thought. They were brought up before a student court on a charge of hazing. And in the middle of the night, they were one after another taken out of the room. I think there were four of us in this big double room. And the first three were taken out. Then they came for me long in the small hours of the morning. When I arrived in the room, I found out what it was all about, that they were charged with this hazing and that I was expected to testify against them. There were no charges against me because I was not a hazer. I refused to do it because I looked around, I saw the members of the court were entirely composed of men except for one, a member of my own class. The other seven on an eight man court had all personally hazed and abused and beaten me the year before. The hypocrisy of it was too much. And so I refused to testify and I was expelled with these fellows. I went to work in the steel mill back in Birmingham twelve hours a day. In a couple of weeks or so we were all reinstated, but I preferred the steel mill by far to the Virginia Military Institute where the [signs?] of the aristocracy were being trained for military careers and business careers and engineering careers, as well. But in the mill, these, of course, were Southerners of an entirely different class. And they were quite decent men except on this race affair, where they were extremely irrational. And outside of the mill was a whole line of shacks, of cribs where Negro prostitutes were holed up. And they were available for 25 cents a throw. And these men were always after me. I was 15, no 16, when I went out there. And they were always after me to go over across the fence with them to patronize these Negro prostitutes. They had a saying that you're not, never been--you're not a man until you've been kicked by a mule and slept with a Negro woman. Oh, they phrased it a little more bluntly than that. But this was, it seemed to me, a very unhealthy attitude, and conjoined to it was a hatred of the Negro and a feeling that he could not be allowed to do anything but the most ordinary demeaning hot, hard, and heavy work. None of the skilled work was open to him. And this struck me as a highly unjust at the time, that no Negro could work on an open hearth furnace or could work on the blooming mill or the rail mill, that they were all on the slag-hole gang or they were just sweeping up or they were just doing the least desirable work around the mills.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking as you--obviously this is the making of John Beecher as a certain kind of man is clear, the pattern. But always he--apparently coming back to the grandparents, they were a factor here in this, your being different in this respect, in the community where being "the man" is brutality and this kind of precocity at the expense of the--degrading at the expense of others.
John Beecher Yes.
John Beecher As for the--I suppose so. One often lacks insight and looking into oneself and determining what factors have been primary in one's conditioning. So possibly I have exaggerated the importance of these influences. I know I always had a considerable contempt for the Southern pretensions to culture. There was very little real culture in the upper middle class of Birmingham where I was raised. People did not read books. They had not, except for a very few, any ability in the arts and music or painting. When I more or less accidentally, or accidentally started writing poetry, this came when--it was an outgrowth of my work in the mills. This seemed to be a far out and a weird kind of performance to most of the people who expected me to get on with being a metallurgical engineer, which is what I had started.
John Beecher I think in the past, of the past. But I think, of course, in the current century, the 20s and the 30s and so on, there has been a considerable flowering, the work of such men as William Faulkner, for example, represents, seems to me a real cultural achievement.
John Beecher I see a great, a far greater cultural future than the cultural past, that is, culture in the sense of cultural achievement. I think that the Negro contribution, both actual and potential, is tremendous. I think certainly one of our greatest living writers is James Baldwin and there are others who have come out of the Southern matrix. I think such a man as Richard Wright, such a book as "Black Boy" is one of the very great American autobiographies. And I think the whole Negro group is on the verge of a flowering intellectually, as well as in such things as music and dancing and so on where they have--and in athletics where they have had a chance to break through and I have found this in my experience with them that they are just loaded with promise and potentiality. I worked last year in lost places in Mississippi and I've known the country Negroes of Alabama and I know many, many of the Negroes of New Orleans quite well. I'm exceedingly interested in the jazz heritage of New Orleans that I've written on it and I have a forthcoming article in "Ramparts" on Preservation Hall, the old musicians there, and I believe this is just an earnest of things to come. And I think once the Negro is released from repression at [unintelligible] likewise. They used to say that "you know, the only trouble with keeping the Negro in the ditch is that the white man has got to get down there with him to keep him there". Once the Negro gets out of the ditch and the white man gets out of the ditch that he's in in order to keep him there, that the South will be the most dynamic, that we will have such a flowering as a regional flowering as it is almost unbelievable and unprecedented.
John Beecher Oh yes, the Southern white is now frozen into into a posture of hopeless defensiveness and anger which can produce nothing. I mean, there's nothing that so eats away the spirit as hatred.
Studs Terkel Before I ask you about a poem and now I want to talk to you about jazz later on too about--the question I ask recurs in my mind and recurs too in the comments of others is integration would come, even with the exception of most rabid say of the hack politicians. Providing that their neighbor or their friend would not condemn them, this fear of social, economic, whatever kind of reprisal, this fear. That is, the person himself would if it were not for the fact that he would be considered taboo.
John Beecher Oh certainly. I was in Germany in 1945, in the summer of 1945, and of course all the Germans told me that they had opposed Hitler. He had fallen just a short time before. But they all seemed to be overjoyed that Hitler had fallen and maintained to me that they themselves had been opposed to the regime, but there was nothing they could do about it since they were prisoners. Of course, some people are pretty skeptical. And I was skeptical at the time, but as I have mellowed, I have thought back and I have thought that comparing them with the position of the white people in the South that there was probably a great deal of truth in it. And I think something of the same sort would occur if the rest of the country, and the rest of the country is going to have to do it, the rest of the country is going to have to back up the Negroes in their struggle for full democracy. To what extent? Only history will tell. Whether we shall have to have a permanent pattern of federal intervention or not. I don't know. I rather suspect that we shall. But if the rest of us, the rest of the country will back up the Negroes in their struggle to the point where honestly representative governments are established in the South. We don't have any now and we haven't had any since Reconstruction. When such governments are established, I think you're going to find that the majority of the white people were not racist after all. But they're not to any real depth. That they will accept the situation and that a truly integrated society can and will flourish.
Studs Terkel Perhaps one last request and maybe you can't fulfill it. It may be unfair to John Beecher the poet. Is there a phrase, a word or two that comes to your mind that's something you have written or in your mind that would concern itself not directly, indirectly with this.
John Beecher Well I think I probably remember this poem. I've written many poems on this question over the years. I mean, they weren't poems on a question, but they were poems and when you analyze them, they are found to deal with the question basically of the racial balance here and the racial dilemma. One I think I remember because it's very, very short which I wrote in Birmingham in 1932, and it has perhaps a little element of prophecy in it. So I will see if I remember it and can. Now say it, it's a little poem called "Fire by Night". "When the burnt Black bodies of the homeless, Were found in the embers of the Negro church, Into which they had crept to sleep on the floor, The wails of the people traveled down the cold wind, And reached the ears of the rich on the mountain, Like the distant whistle of a fast train coming."