BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, July 2016
Like almost everyone else in the U.S., Atlanta attorney Joseph Madison Beck had read To Kill a Mockingbird, and he decided in 1992 to satisfy his curiosity about the similarity between the novel and an episode in his own family history. He wrote to author Harper Lee: Did she know about his white father’s legal defense of an African-American man accused of raping a white woman in 1938, not far from where Lee was then growing up in south Alabama? No, Lee wrote back politely; though she could see there were “obvious parallels,” she didn’t recall the case at all.
The case in Troy, Alabama, was locally notorious at the time, but whether or not it had any unconscious influence on Lee, the story outlined in Beck’s family memoir, My Father and Atticus Finch, is absolutely worth knowing as an illuminating instance of the staggering racism of the Jim Crow South and of the complications of its social order.
Joseph Beck’s father, Foster Beck, a young rural lawyer, was strong-armed into defending the accused rapist by a judge who was embarrassed by how bad the Alabama legal system had looked in the recent “Scottsboro Boys” case. At first reluctant to take the case, Beck became convinced that the defendant Charles White was innocent, and he fought for him to the tragic end.
His strong legal argument ran into a wall of white intransigence. In Lee’s novel, the courageous Atticus ultimately goes on with his respectable life; Foster Beck was not so lucky. He paid for the rest of his days for the “crime” of defending a black man too vigorously.
His son has delved into court records to narrate the trial, but also beautifully describes the region’s community rituals—hunting doves, killing hogs, making cane syrup. More importantly, he lovingly portrays his parents and grandparents in all their complexities. Foster Beck and his wife-to-be Bertha Stewart were honorable people who were punished for fighting injustice, and this book is a fine tribute.