His Father and Atticus Finch

Joseph Beck’s book is more than just family history

Published in 2018 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2018

In 1938, in a small town in southern Alabama, a white lawyer defies town mores by defending a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Here’s the twist: The lawyer’s name isn’t Atticus Finch and this isn’t fiction. 

The lawyer was Foster Beck, and 78 years later, his son, IP attorney Joseph Beck, has written about the real-life story of State of Alabama v. Charles White, Alias, in his memoir, My Father and Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama

When Beck was growing up, his father mentioned the case only enough that “I was aware of something unpleasant in the background,” Beck says. But whenever he mentioned it to anyone else, the response was, “Hey, that’s To Kill a Mockingbird!” 

A deeper question followed: Did Harper Lee base her book on the case—and America’s most beloved fictional attorney on his father? Twenty-five years ago, Beck was on a fishing trip with Harper Lee’s agent, who offered to forward that question to his client. And in what Beck calls a “gracious letter,” Harper Lee acknowledged the obvious parallels but said she didn’t recall his father’s case; Mockingbird was a work of fiction.

But that just made Beck want to know more. 

Beck had always wanted to both practice law and write, but being the go-to guy for copyright cases at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, with clients including the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. and Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast, left little time for creative pursuits.

So in 1986, Beck stepped away from his practice. “I cashed in my chips and tried to write full-time,” he says. He worked on “three or four versions” of a novel about three men who were stationed in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War, but no one was buying. So he came back to law. “I had to make partner twice,” he says. “It was easier the second time.”

The fishing trip with the book agent brought him back to the keyboard. His father had been working on a family history, but he died in the middle of describing the Charles White case. Beck: “His handwriting stops in the middle of this sentence: ‘The prosecution produced testimony that the defendant was purported to be a—’”

Beck asked an archivist to find all the cases with his father’s name on it in the Alabama Supreme Court. He read newspaper accounts of the trial, and the case—and what it said about white Southerners—slowly came into focus.

When Charles White was sentenced to death, Joe writes, the white men in the small town of Enterprise were “prepared to let Foster Beck be, provided he was not stiff-necked and accepted his loss.” He didn’t. Not only did he appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, he paid for the appeal transcript with his own money. Years later, when Joe saw his father’s signature on the transcript, it touched him deeply. “In 1938 in Alabama,” he says, “a lot of people didn’t have much money, my father included.”

After Beck lost the appeal, and White was executed on June 9, 1939, business in his small town evaporated. It forced a move to Montgomery, where he went to work for the Veterans Administration. He never returned to Enterprise nor to the courtroom. “That was not what he wanted to do,” his son remembers. “He wanted to be a trial lawyer. He was a trial lawyer.” 

Becks writes that his father “went to his death in 1973 believing that Charles White had not received justice,” but he allows the residents of Enterprise their complexity, too. “There are all kinds of white Southerners,” Beck says. “There were some that were adamant that [my father] shouldn’t do it. There were some that said, ‘It’s in the Constitution now; you must do it.’ There were some who probably grudgingly admired him a little bit.”

As for his client, Beck says, “My father really grew to admire him as they fought this case together. I think there was mutual respect by the end.”

Beck begins the book, which is out in paperback this month, by saying his father “did not sell for his worth”—meaning the case cost him any recognition or esteem he might have earned as a trial lawyer. His son’s book succeeds in giving it back, with interest.

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