Joseph Madison Beck knew the world had changed shortly after his father's death. A sign for the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway outside of Montgomery, Alabama, was erected and as quickly defaced. That part didn't surprise him; what happened next did.
"They put it up and bad people wrote bad things on the sign," Beck says. "The next day a new sign went up. When I was a boy they would have torn it down and it would have stayed down."
In the 1930’s, his father, Foster Beck, was impelled by a judge to defend Charles White, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Harper Lee was 12 when the case was tried to much publicity. Before her death earlier this year, she denied knowledge of the White case, but To Kill a Mockingbird's similar plot lurks in the background of My Father & Atticus Finch, Joseph’s memoir of the very American problem of race.
Joseph followed in his father's footsteps and became a Harvard-educated attorney, initially representing poor clients as a legal services representative, but he'd always had the itch to write. He left his legal practice for a time to concentrate on a novel about the Vietnam War, then later returned to a career that has included defending the hip hop band Outkast when they were sued by Rosa Parks for using her name as the tile of a 1998 song. (She was represented by Johnny Cochran and the case was eventually settled out of court.)
Beck was attending high school in Alabama when Mockingbird was first published more than 50 years ago. Throughout his life he'd heard comparison's made to a client his father Foster Beck had represented back in 1938.
"I heard these stories as a teenager, but I never pursued it," he says.
Beck was on a fishing trip with a literary agent and told the agent of the Mockingbird similarities—a black man raping a white woman, set in Alabama. Soon Beck began to research his father's case in earnest.
Last year Lee published Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft of Mockingbird in which the defense attorney is less admirable when it comes to issues of race. Beck writes in his book’s introduction, "If you miss the Atticus of Mockingbird, if you feel sad about the Atticus of Watchman, keep reading. This book is about neither of those fictional characters. Instead it's about a real life lived with conviction."
Beck's fiction-writing background shows as he imagines dialogue and creates vivid scenes that make the past come alive as more than facts, which prove murky around issues of consent and evidence that the victim remained physically a virgin.
The memoir cemented Beck's respect for his father, but also for his father's father, a larger-than-life character known as Mr. M.L., who is said to have driven the Ku Klux Klan out of Enterprise, Alabama. Mr. M.L. ran a sawmill and paid his best worker, a black man, more than many white workers.
But he also believed in gradual change in racial equality, a belief that was progressive for his time.
"The professional class in places like Montgomery wanted to progress and have a better town, a better life for their children," Beck says. "They knew they had to deal with the racial issue, but they also knew they couldn't do it overnight. The majority of the really angry whites who lynched and killed were working class or even unemployed. There was a sense that if you absolutely clamp down on everything, it would explode and wash back against the upper class."
Foster Beck faced a defendant less noble than the one in Mockingbird. White was from Detroit and both hostile and smart. Beck's strong beliefs forced him to take the case, even though it led to the end of his legal career.
"He was doing the right thing, but he paid a huge debt," Beck says of his father. "It's the story of the South during this period. Like Dr. King, he saw the arc bending toward justice. If [my father] had refused to undertake the case, he would have paid a bigger price."
Part of the book's message, Beck says, is about the mixed nature of Southerners, who celebrate Confederate Grave Decoration Day in a small way to rewrite Civil War history. "My grandfather's father was a Civil War veteran on the Confederate side, while my mother's oldest brother was named for Abraham Lincoln," he says. "I wanted to show there are different kinds of Southerners."
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin.