As remembered by Ira Grupper
Read at Memorial Service for Rev. Bob Beech, April. 12, 2008 in Bovey, Minnesota]
Tribute to Bob Beech
Bob and I first met during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Bob was at that time the head of the Delta Ministry of the National Council of Churches, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Bob and his family lived in a white neighborhood, a courageous act even for a white civil rights activist.
I had moved down to Hattiesburg to join the staff of COFO, an umbrella group of civil rights organizations in Mississippi, and then to work with the MFDP, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. African Americans were not allowed to join the Democratic Party, so the MFDP was formed. I had moved to Hattiesburg from Georgia, where I had been on the staff of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — the nonviolent "marines" of the Movement.
We sat down many times to talk, and I told Bob my parents came from Orthodox Jewish stock — what y'all call holy rollers — tho I was no longer ritually observant.
Then I hit him with the following: "I used to hate Christians, particularly Catholics, because so few spoke up during the Holocaust, when Hitler was putting my people in the gas ovens." Bob responded: "I'm sure glad I'm not a Catholic."
We discussed theology, I a jackleg religionist and Bob out of Harvard Divinity School. I had the nerve to argue with him about Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theolgica and Summa Contra Tyrannus.
He asked me what my view of religion was, and I remember quoting Yip Harburg, who had written the words for The Wizard of Oz, and the song "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?":
Where Bishop Patrick crossed the street
An X now marks the spot.
The light of God was with him...
But the traffic light was not.
I grew closer to Bob. He personified, and gave me a real understanding, of true Christian love.
One day Bob and I were called out to Vernon Dahmer's farm. Mr. Dahmer was an exceptional individual. He was an African American, living in Mississippi, who was quite wealthy. As president of the local NAACP he had gone on the radio to urge Blacks to register to vote, and offered to personally pay the poll tax of anyone wanting to register. The poll tax was a way of keeping African Americans off the voting rolls.
Mr. Dahmer showed us a sign the Ku Klux Klan had nailed to a tree near his house the night before. It was a recruiting poster for the Klan. Why such a recruiting poster would be used as a death threat I will never understand, but it was.
Six months later Vernon Dahmer was dead. The Klan had surrounded his house one night and hurled a Molotov cocktail into the house, setting it ablaze. When Mr. Dahmer, his wife and daughter tried to escape, the Klan opened up with rifle fire. Mr. Dahmer grabbed his piece, and returned fire — and the Klan fled.
Mr. Dahmer's wife got out safely; his daughter was burned badly, but survived. Vernon Dahmer was burned so badly, and had inhaled so much smoke, that he died two days later. My older daughter is named after him.
Bob gave me the KKK sign for safekeeping. I kept it for over three decades, and then, in the 1990'a, with Bob's approval, I donated it to the Civil Rights Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, where it now resides.
Havdalah, or separation, is the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. During the ceremony a braided candle and a spice box are passed between the celebrants. Inhaling the sweet spices is symbolically separating Shabbat from the coming week.
Today is Shabbat, the Sabbath. Today is the day I separate the Bob I knew in the past from the cherished memory I will carry into next week, and for the rest of my days.
I loved Bob Beech. Honor to his memory, and Power to the People.
Copyright © 2008