On Nov. 5, Gould Beech at age 87 quietly slipped away to join his beloved wife, Mary. He spent his final years in peaceful Magnolia Springs, where Spanish moss drapes enormous oaks and the Post Office still delivers the mail by water route.
A visitor to Beech’s home in this South Alabama hamlet would hardly have suspected he had once stood at the epicenter of a political earthquake. But when Beech chose to reminisce, as occasionally he did, old events came back with blinding clarity, reminding the visitor that Alabama once had tried a different way – if only for a short while.
The year was 1947. Alabama had a new governor named Jim Folsom, who was determined to help little folks who lived back up at the branchheads, as he liked to say. Big Jim shocked the political experts when he won the governorship the previous year by taking his campaign directly to the voters, instead of lining up power brokers, as was the custom. People jammed school auditoriums and courthouse squares to hear this six-foot-eight-inch populist proclaim a new day -- one when farmers would have paved roads to haul their crops to market and old folks would get pensions to ward off hunger. Big Jim would hold up a mop made of corn shucks and promise to clean out the special interests from the Capitol.
Young Gould Beech helped Big Jim craft some of those speeches. Earlier, Beech had drifted from writing newspaper editorials to editing the Southern Farmer magazine. In columns wedged between advertisements and advice to the lovelorn, he had urged his readers, white and black, to advance their common economic interests. Like Folsom, Beech opposed the ruling alliance of big landowners and industrialists, who had fought progressive ideas for decades, leaving Alabama with miserable schools, impassable roads and an unresponsive Legislature.
The Farm Bureau, which now goes by the name of Alfa, was a particularly strong member of that alliance because it could count on help from farm agents who worked for the state Agricultural Extension Service at what is now Auburn University. Big Jim knew that many of those agents, though public employees, had campaigned against him.
One of Folsom’s first political moves as governor was to name Beech and two other supporters to Auburn’s Board of Trustees. Their presence gave Folsom the majority he needed on the board to order the Extension Service out of politics and, in the process, pin back Alfa’s ears.
Thus Beech seemed to be participating in the new Alabama he had so passionately advocated as a writer and editor. But the reactionaries fought back with a savagery that surprised the Folsom camp. During a special session, the state Senate refused to confirm the new Auburn board members – especially Beech, whom Alfa and others vilified as a dangerous leftist. At one point, six hundred Auburn students rode in a caravan to Montgomery to show support for Folsom’s action, but to no avail.
As the fight became hopeless, Beech withdrew as an Auburn trustee. Later, he and Mary moved to Houston, where Beech found a new career as an adviser to a popular mayor. He also made a lot of money in real estate, achieving the financial success that had eluded him as a crusading editor.
I knew Beech in his last years after he had returned to Alabama. By then, he was used to newspaper writers asking him to tell his story. A few years ago, the University of Alabama, his alma mater, produced a television documentary on his life, hailing the work he and Mary did for civil rights. Perhaps most revealing of his new status, however, was a resolution the Alabama Senate passed in 1986. In it, senators expressed regret over the injustice their predecessors had once heaped upon this man.
Now that Beech is gone, I wish to express a last, sweet good-bye for his having shown us that some things are indeed worth fighting for, even if the struggle exacts a personal cost. Beech’s persecutors are mostly dead and forgotten – small men who thought only of themselves and preserving their privileged status. His spirit, by contrast, still moves us to dream of a better Alabama.
Bailey Thomson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama.