My Father & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight For Justice in 1930s Alabama
By Joseph Madison Beck
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
When one thinks of an intrepid lawyer defending a black man accused of rape in the South, one thinks of Atticus Finch in the landmark novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
The thing is there were figures in real life in the South during the time Mockingbird was set, including Foster Beck.
Joseph Madison Beck tells the story of his father’s courageous defense of a black man in South Alabama.
Foster Beck was a respected trial lawyer who defied the unspoken code of 1930s Alabama by defending a black man charged with raping a white woman. Now a lawyer himself, Joseph Beck has become intrigued by the similarities between his father’s story and the one at the heart of Harper Lee’s classic work.
Joseph Beck uses his father’s handwritten family history and conversations with his parents, newspaper articles detailing the sensational trial, the trial transcript, and the Alabama Supreme Court decision, to visually reconstruct his father’s role in the 1938 trial, which was much publicized when Harper Lee was 12 years old.
When a judge called upon Foster Beck to take on a case that no other lawyer would take and defend Charles White, a black man accused of interracial sexual assault, Foster accepted.
Joseph Beck wrote of his father and the similarities to Atticus Finch are evident here, “Particularities aside, he was still in his thirties, still idealistic, reverent about the Constitution – a government of laws, not of men – and not yet immune to the siren call, the image of himself as the lone lawyer standing for the unpopular client because it was right that a man have a lawyer. It was why, really, he went to law school to begin with. He had liked himself when defending farmers and sharecroppers, white and colored, from the banks, and never mind that most of his clients couldn’t pay cash money – he was getting by all right, and with each win for the poor, the commercial interests of Enterprise and all of Coffee County were taking note that he could win hard cases. With their growing respect would eventually come more paying work; it was just a matter of time.”
Early on in Beck’s dealings with Charles White, there was an issue with a confession he gave the police. Joseph Beck writes of his father, “He was still almost half a foot shorter than his client, but it was Charles’s mental toughness, not his physique, that left him intimidated and uncertain. This man – if he was going to represent him – was not a grateful, churchgoing colored client from Enterprise who needed his help fighting a foreclosure by the bank, but a strapping, sassy Northern black who had already confessed to raping a white girl and was now demanding a trial, even if it meant the state could ask for the death penalty. Though he was also a man, according to the United States Constitution, entitled to a lawyer. Her did not like Charles White, but that was not the point. The point was to give the man good representation, convince him to enter a plea, get him as short a sentence as he could, a chance someday for a parole. That could be worked out privately, in chambers, without Judge Parks or a jury ever having to look at, much less listen to, Charles White.”
In the trial, even with the examining doctor’s testimony before a packed and hostile courtroom that there was no evidence of intercourse or violence, the all-white jury voted to convict. Charles White was found guilty and sentenced to execution. The saga captivated the community with its dramatic testimonies and emotional outcome. It would take an immense toll on those involved, including Foster Beck, who continued to fight for his client’s exoneration until the day he died.”
My Father & Atticus Finch seeks to understand how race, class, and the memory of the South’s defeat in the Civil War produced the trial’s outcome, and how these issues figure into the literary imagination.
Beck does a nice job of including history of the South in the time he grew up, including this passage: “Southerners were like an ethnic group back when I was growing up, with our own version of history, our particular grievances, our preferred preparations of foods, our unique accents. Like other American ethnic groups, we had our rituals, especially in small towns and rural areas. At least as late as the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was, in parts of the South, an annual rite called Confederate Grave Decoration Day.
“I recall hearing that my father received a surprise visit from a Pike County court official on a Confederate Grave Decoration Day event held in Crenshaw County. If that event was held on the first Sunday in July – the preferred date for some Protestant denominations – then, based on the 1938 calendar, the visit from the Pike County court official would have occurred on the afternoon of July 3.
“There would be a few firecrackers on Monday, July 4, but Independence Day was not a festive occasion in south Alabama as up north, For many in south Alabama, the Fourth was a Yankee holiday, celebrating a successful rebellion. By comparison, Confederate Grave Decoration Day commemorated what was, for many Southern whites, a failed rebellion, a noble but misunderstood lost cause.”
Beck also touches on the politics of the time and how hos father influenced him: “Foster Beck was a lifelong Democrat. He was also a racial progressive, at least by the standards of the times. I distinctly remember him taking me aside when he got home from work – by then we lived in Montgomery – on the day in 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the school desegregation case. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘The court was right to decide it this way. There will be some high talk, but you are not to engage in it.’
“He was right about the high talk. It was after that Supreme Court decision that the worst while Alabamians began openly speaking of their hatred for ‘n—–s,’ and even some white moderates flew Confederate battle flags and demanded the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Many Americans remember what followed: the bombing of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Montgomery home, the savage beatings of the Freedom Riders at the bus station in Montgomery, the rise of George Wallace. In view of the climate of fear in those days, it is perhaps understandable that my father, to my knowledge, did not often talk publicly about his controversial defense of a black-on-white rape case fifteen years earlier in a small town eighty-five miles southeast of Montgomery.”