My Father and Atticus Finch : A Lawyer's Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama
by Joseph Madison Beck

Overview -

As a child, Joseph Beck heard the stories when other lawyers came up with excuses, his father courageously defended a black man charged with raping a white woman.

Now a lawyer himself, Beck reconstructs his father's role in State of Alabama vs.  Read more...

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More About My Father and Atticus Finch by Joseph Madison Beck

As a child, Joseph Beck heard the stories when other lawyers came up with excuses, his father courageously defended a black man charged with raping a white woman.

Now a lawyer himself, Beck reconstructs his father's role in State of Alabama vs. Charles White, Alias, a trial that was much publicized when Harper Lee was twelve years old.

On the day of Foster Beck s client s arrest, the leading local newspaper reported, under a page-one headline, that "a wandering negro fortune teller giving the name Charles White" had "volunteered a detailed confession of the attack" of a local white girl. However, Foster Beck concluded that the confession was coerced. The same article claimed that "the negro accomplished his dastardly purpose," but as in To Kill a Mockingbird, there was evidence at the trial to the contrary. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant had to be escorted from the courthouse to a distant prison for safekeeping, and the courthouse itself was surrounded by a detachment of sixteen Alabama highway patrolmen.

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 worried that his reputation had cast a shadow over his lively, intelligent, and supportive fiance, Bertha, who had her own social battles to fight.

This riveting memoir, steeped in time and place, seeks to understand how race relations, class, and the memory of southern defeat in the Civil War produced such a haunting distortion of justice, and how it may figure into our literary imagination.


  • ISBN-13: 9780393285826
  • ISBN-10: 0393285820
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Publish Date: June 2016
  • Page Count: 240

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Lawyers & Judges
Books > Social Science > Discrimination & Racism

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-04-04
  • Reviewer: Staff

With the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman and subsequent death of Harper Lee, Beck’s memoir about his father, Foster, an Alabama lawyer who he speculates helped inspire To Kill a Mockingbird, is especially timely. Foster was still at the start of his career when, in 1938, a judge picked him to defend Charles White, an African-American man accused of rape. Many were not happy to have a white lawyer represent a black defendant quite so vigorously. Beck’s suspenseful recreation of the trial is gripping, far more so than his well-intentioned but sometimes clumsy examination of race in the Depression-era South. Beck also provides a fond record of his parents’ memories of their courtship, which coincided with this tumultuous time in Foster’s career. But the book never quite knows what it wants to be; it is a blurry, somewhat disconcerting mix of fact and fiction (in the form of recreated dialogue). Beck, a lawyer himself, feels great pride in his father’s bravery, and declares Atticus Finch and Foster “birds of a feather” even though Lee denied any recollection of the case. It is certainly an interesting story, but his telling of it lacks the distance that might have made this book more cohesive. (June)

BookPage Reviews

A real-life Atticus Finch

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.


This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews