we must dissent

Salute This Flag

The Fourth of July
Was a holiday for everybody but people’s cooks
Corinne was fixing us hot biscuit
When I marched into the kitchen
Waving the Stars and Stripes
And ordered to
“Salute this flag! It made your free!”
I just couldn’t understand why Corinne
Plumb wouldn’t.

— John Beecher From To Live and Die in Dixie

John Beecher in 1976 by © Rob Amberg for the Asheville arts monthly, “The Arts Journal”.
John Beecher in 1976 (photograph © Rob Amberg, 2017.

Several friends found it difficult to celebrate the Fourth of July this year. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

I strive not to let these forces win the biggest gift I could give them, namely to shut up and wait out their dominion. Instead, we must wrestle; we must dissent.

Alabama poet John Beecher, like his Yankee ancestors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, faced constraints as a dissenter, but dissent he did. Treat yourself to his fine collection To Live and Die in Dixie.  The title poem narrates a shoot-out between local self-styled white patriarchs and a group of white farmers and black farmers who dared to unite their farming and marketing. The white patriarchy felt threatened by the success the collective achieved.

Father Francis Xavier Walter introduced me to Beecher’s work when I taught at the University of Alabama (1966-1970), and he invited me to read the title poem at a picnic of the Alabama ACLU. Blacks and whites freely assembled together at a huge outdoor bbq. That had recently been illegal.

NAACP v. Alabama (357 U.S. 449)

Steven P. Brown stresses that NAACP v. Alabama “was the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized the freedom of association as a right protected by the First Amendment.” — from Encylopedia of Alabama accessed on July 8, 2017.

Alabama courts forbade the NAACP to operate in the state from 1951, as a reprisal when the organization refused to submit its membership lists.

In 1964 U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II wrote the court’s unanimous decision.  He pointed out that supplying their membership lists would require NAACP members to risk “economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of physical hostility.” In forbidding Alabama to ban of the NAACP, Harlan wrote: “This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations.”

At the ACLU’s integrated picnic, a wizened black man with over-flowing white hair came up to me when I finished reading the poem. Everyone got quiet. He looked me eyeball to eyeball, nodded approval, and proclaimed to those nearby, “It be so. I was there. I was one that survived.”

Later I met Beecher, initiated an invitation for him to read at the University, and remained his friend until he died, in 1980. Here’s a poem I wrote about counsel Beecher received from then the country’s most celebrated poet.

Robert Frost by Fred Palumbo
Robert Frost by Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer (Library of Congress/public domain)

A Question of American Canon

On a winter night in South Carolina,
my friend Beecher,
by then 68,
that Venerable Frost
had told him at Breadloaf
many summers before,

“John, don’t write any more
N***er poems.
That subject is dead,
will resolve itself,
will pull you
into a mere footnote.

“Rather be Eternal.”

“And that’s what the bastard wanted most,”
Beecher sighed.

“Frost proved that most Americans’ hearts,
like most of their textbooks, won’t open
if you get specific.
Every time he neared a meaning,
`a burning barn,
a yellow wood,
or frozen lake,’
he cleared his throat and smiled;
enigmatically, of course.”

That February John rescued a camellia
caught in the gate.

One would need to be versed in perpetuity
not to believe
his ancestors Harriet and Henry Ward B. wept,
buried far away,
near their Frosty neighbor.

— Louie Crew Clay



Image Credits: photo of John Beecher in 1976  – photography © Rob Amberg 2017; the photo of Robert Frost by Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer (Library of Congress/public domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

Louie Crew Clay

Louie Crew Clay,  81, is an Anniston, Alabama native and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers. He lives in East Orange, NJ, with Ernest Clay, his husband for 43 years. He holds an M.A. from Auburn University, a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa), and honorary doctorates from three seminaries of the Episcopal Church. He is the founder of Integrity, an international organization of lgbt Episcopalians/Anglicans. Editors have published 2,730+ of Louie Crew Clay's poems and essays — including Letters from Samaria: The Prose & Poetry of Louie Crew Clay, NYC: Church Publishing, Inc., November 2015 and  Our Station Forgot to Give the Evening News,  Poetry Superhighway. An eBook in the press' annual 'The Great Poetry E-Book Free-For-All,' online from December 1, 2016. You can follow his work at Rutgers.edu. See also Wikipedia.org. The University of Michigan collects Clay’s papers.