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My Father and Atticus Finch: A Lawyer's…

My Father and Atticus Finch: A Lawyer's Fight for Justice in 1930s…

by Joseph Madison Beck

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A son's exploration of a case that presented his parents (as yet unmarried) with a moral and ethical challenge long before his birth. Joseph Madison Beck researched the arrest, trial and execution of a black man accused of raping a white woman in South Alabama in 1938. There are some parallels to the story line of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harper Lee may have heard something of this case as a child (she was 12 years old when it was happening), but when asked decades later she acknowledged the similarities but said she had no recollection of knowing about it. Regardless of whether she did or didn't, the differences are really more striking than the similarities. The defendant, Charles White, was a "healer" and fortune teller from Detroit, had a criminal history, and was no Tom Robinson. He was neither deferential nor sympathetic; refused to accept his counsel's advice, and chose to take a chance on receiving the death penalty rather than accepting a plea bargain that would have saved his life. The alleged victim was a 20 year old woman whose mental age was purported by her attorneys to be no more than 12, removing any question of her ability to consent to whatever may have happened between her and White. Unlike Mayella Ewell in the novel, who was never examined by a doctor, she was examined, and medical testimony established that she was unbloodied, unbruised, and still a virgin immediately after the "attack". Foster Beck was not an established respected attorney; he was young, unmarried, with his career yet to be made. Sadly, his agreement to act as Charles White's defense attorney, and his persistent efforts on White's behalf, including appealing his conviction to the Alabama Supreme Court, probably ruined any chance of a prosperous future in private practice in his home territory. White was well protected by the local Sheriff and a large contingent of State Police officers during his imprisonment and trial.

The author was hampered by not having begun his research into the case until his parents and many of the other participants were no longer available; letters that might have filled in holes in the history had not been saved. The public record was nearly all he had to go on. I found it a bit disturbing that he occasionally let his own surmises about significant unrecorded conversations guide his narrative. That must often be true of narrative non-fiction, but it was not particularly skillfully managed here. He includes a lot of family history of both his parents, which was mildly interesting, but not especially illuminating, and he was often pointedly repetitious to the point of insulting the reader's intelligence.

Although I read through this book quickly, and found it interesting as documentation of a failure of justice, I can give it no more than a weak 3 stars. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Oct 7, 2016 |
  pgabj | Jul 21, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393285820, Hardcover)

The story of Foster Beck, the author’s late father, whose defense of a black man accused of rape in 1930s Alabama foreshadowed the trial at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird.

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 fiancé, 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.

5 illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 11 May 2016 09:59:35 -0400)

"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"--Dust jacket flap.… (more)

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