A Review of
Joseph Madison Beck, My Father & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.
As the title suggests, this book begins with the notion that the story of the author’s father could have inspired Harper Lee’s portrait of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. However, Miss Lee, through her agent, told Joseph Madison Beck that she had never known about either the case of Charles White or Foster Campbell Beck’s role in it.
Sources for this work include Beck’s conversations with his parents; his father’s handwritten family history, which ended, however, at a point before Foster Beck could describe the White case in much detail; newspaper articles; an incomplete trial transcript; and the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion on Foster Beck’s appeal of the local court’s decision. The author, Joseph Beck, a member of the Law faculty at Emory University in Atlanta, wasn’t born until five years after the trial, so he had to “surmise, from knowledge of my family and the times, what may have been said, what surely was said.” (viii-ix)
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Judge W. L. Parks telephoned young Enterprise, Alabama, lawyer Foster Beck in 1938 and asked (told) him to act as the defense attorney for a 6’5”, 250 pound black man, Charles White, accused of raping a local white girl in Troy, 37 miles from Enterprise. No member of the Troy bar was willing to take the case, and Judge Parks wanted to make sure a local attorney was appointed to defend White, lest the case attract outsiders like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Foster Beck was not eager to accept the assignment, but Judge Parks pressed, even telling him that his father, Madison Lewis (“Mr. M.L.”) Beck, would be proud of him. Mr. M.L. was known as a “progressive” on race, at least in Alabama terms. An entrepreneur with a lumber mill and a general store, Mr. M.L. also overindulged in alcohol and drugs. Foster was uncomfortable with the idea that Judge Parks might be appointing him because he was his father’s son, rather than on his merits as an attorney.
At the time, Beck was in his thirties, single, and, as a lawyer, had already earned a reputation for his work in civil cases, where he had protected poorer citizens, regardless of color, from banks during the Great Depression. So, in a sense, Foster, too, was a racial “progressive,” but this case would be very different from his usual work.
Beck assumed that he was expected to convince Charles White to plead guilty to raping a white woman, for which he would receive life imprisonment, probably with no chance of parole. If White insisted on going to trial, however, the death penalty would be on the table, and the prosecution would also be able to present information about White’s criminal history. (White told Beck he’d not been in trouble with the law, but Beck doubted the truth of that statement; as it turned out, his suspicions were justified.) Foster Beck was a great believer in the majesty of the law, but in Charles White he met a defendant who was not, and who, moreover, refused to plead guilty to a crime he claimed he hadn’t committed, even if that plea might save his life.
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Foster Beck did his best for Charles White, but it was no use, as the attorney had probably known from the first. The “victim,” Elizabeth Liger, was a 20 year-old white woman who acted as if she were mentally challenged (although the author believes she more closely resembled what we would call today an “airhead”). The local doctor testified that Liger was “still a virgin,” yet claimed that White had raped her.
Charles White was a traveling fortune-teller, and Elizabeth was eager to have her fortune told because she wanted to marry, have children, and get the heck out of Enterprise, Alabama. Three local physicians, none of whom had specialized in diagnosing or treating mental disorders, agreed that Elizabeth had a mental age of 10-12, which meant that she could not have legally “consented” to whatever White did to her, even though he said she had done so.
At first, Beck tried to persuade White to plead guilty, avoid a trial, and thus save his life, but White refused to bend. Consequently, when the trial rolled around, what Judge Parks had assumed would be a quick and easy process that would not even require him to impanel a jury, became something quite different—a public spectacle, much like the one portrayed in Mockingbird. The result was no surprise: White was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Nevertheless, lawyer Beck could not let it go—he asked White to plead for mercy, hoping that Judge Parks might buck the jury if White did so. White supposedly asked for mercy (or so author Joseph Beck says he was told), although there is no record of such a plea. So, Foster Beck appealed the verdict to the Alabama Supreme Court and suddenly found himself shunned by the white citizens of Enterprise. Lower-class whites vandalized Beck’s office and attacked him when they found him fishing by himself (because none of his former friends would join him). So much for Foster’s—and for a while, the author’s—belief that Southern whites were not unified in their acceptance of the idea of the depravity of African Americans!
While his appeal was before the state Supreme Court, Foster Beck did what he could to buck up Charles White, even visiting him in Montgomery’s Kilby prison on Thanksgiving Day, 1938. White seemed vaguely hopeful, but then the ruling came down—both the lower court’s verdict and the death sentence were upheld. White was electrocuted on June 9, 1939.
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And this is where, if Beck were Atticus Finch, perhaps the book would have ended, but. . . .
Another main character in the book, Bertha Stewart, was introduced to Foster by his sister Frances, Bertha’s classmate at the Women’s College of Alabama in Montgomery (today’s Huntingdon College), where both studied to be teachers. Upon graduation, Frances and Bertha moved to Enterprise, where Bertha taught high school English.
During their ensuing courtship, Bertha supported Foster’s legal career, including his role in the White case, but Beck was very cautious when it came to making a commitment to Bertha about their future. Perhaps for good reason: once lawyer Beck appealed the death penalty verdict against his client to the Alabama Supreme Court, Enterprise locals ostracized him. Consequently, Beck’s law practice suffered; his income fell; and he could no longer imagine supporting a wife and family, let alone an elderly, ailing father.
Foster Beck’s law practice in Enterprise did not recover. He did marry Bertha Stewart, in 1942; their son Joseph was born in February 1943. Though Beck had been born blind in one eye, his local draft board apparently neither forgot nor forgave him for his role in the Charles White case; at any rate, he was drafted in May 1943. During WWII, Beck worked for the War Department as a real estate attorney and as project manager for the program that established Alabama’s Fort Rucker. After the war, with nothing much left of his law practice or of his father’s business interests, Foster moved to Montgomery, where he worked for the Veterans Administration. He died in 1973, still believing, according to his son, “that Charles White had not received justice.” (196)
In the final chapter, author Joseph Beck returns to his comparison of Foster Beck and Atticus Finch, but with little resolution, concluding that, “as men of courage and conviction, the two men were ‘birds of a feather.’ Alabamians should take pride not only in native daughter Harper Lee, creator of the fictional lawyer who inspired so many, but also in native son Foster Campbell Beck, a real Alabama lawyer.” (201)
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Joseph Madison Beck’s paean of praise to his father presents some problems. First, there is his effort to hold up Foster Beck as the real-life inspiration of Harper Lee’s beloved fictional character, Atticus Finch, despite Ms. Lee’s gentle rebuff of this notion. If Beck continues to cling to this idea, the rest of us don’t necessarily have to agree.
Secondly, there is the way Beck uses his supporting evidence, and the supporting evidence he uses. As mentioned above, he draws on some primary sources, but even Beck admits that there are gaping holes in that evidence. Beck does his best to overcome these limitations, for instance by creating conversations that “may have” or “surely” occurred, even though there is little documentary evidence to support them. On the whole, Beck’s approach is persuasive, but one is still tempted to label the book as “fictionalized,” or, perhaps better, as “creative non-fiction.”
This work is quite readable. Even someone who knows, or can deduce early on, how the White case will turn out, given the geography and the era in which events transpired, is drawn by Joseph Madison Beck’s skillful effort to re-create life in small town Alabama in the late 1930s (e.g., fairs, hunting, fishing, hog killing) and to show how Foster Beck and the Charles White trial fit into that milieu.
It must also be admitted that Joseph Beck treats his father more even-handedly than one might expect. He seems more interested in recognizing Foster Beck’s efforts to secure justice for Charles White than he is show that White was innocent as the driven snow, or that his defense counsel was a regular Sir Galahad—Enterprise, Alabama, edition.
In short, while I would not recommend that you toss out your copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Joseph Madison Beck’s My Father & Atticus Finch might fit well in a History course focused on the “Age of Jim Crow.” It is quite accessible, and, come to think of it, might even work in conjunction with an English course featuring To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh, my, I’ve just recommended an interdisciplinary approach!
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: