A distinguished Atlanta attorney remembers his lawyer father, who defended a black man against charges that he raped a white woman in pre–civil rights era Alabama.
As a young adult, Beck was struck by the similarities between his father and Atticus Finch, the main character of Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Finch, Foster Beck was “idealistic [and] reverent about the Constitution.” His clients included sharecroppers and farmers whom he defended against banks and who mostly compensated him in produce rather than “cash money.” Yet Foster was satisfied because he was following his conscience. When a judge called upon him to defend Charles White, a black man accused of interracial sexual assault, Foster accepted. He believed that future clients would view the fact that he had taken a difficult case—which he believed he could win—as proof of his worth as a lawyer. But Foster soon saw just how tough the case would be. Unlike other blacks he had defended, White was intimidating and demanding. Claiming he was innocent, White refused Foster’s efforts to find a solution because he would not compromise with a racist judicial system determined to send him to the electric chair. Foster found evidence that the woman White had allegedly raped was an uninjured virgin. But he still lost the case as well as the appeal that followed. Not long afterward, he lost his struggling practice as well. Beck’s claim that the highly publicized White trial may have influenced the young Harper Lee is as fascinating as it is plausible, especially given the striking similarities he notes between his father and Atticus Finch. Yet it is ultimately the generosity of spirit that infuses Beck’s recollections that is the most moving part of this memorable story.
A poignant and warmly engaging memoir.