His Father's Footsteps

Joseph Beck 65C

Authorial Legend: Joseph beck says he got to know his father better while writing a book on his most challenging court case.

Ann Borden

Joseph Beck's first published novel, My Father and Atticus Finch, is equal parts memoir, tribute, racial commentary, legal analysis, family history, and love song to the South he grew up in.

With all that weight behind it, you might assume it’s been a long time coming. You’d be right.

As an intellectual property lawyer with the firm Kilpatrick Townsend, he has argued landmark copyright cases for clients including the family of Martin Luther King Jr. and rap artist OutKast. But always, in the back of his mind, was the figure of his father. Born and raised in rural Alabama, Foster Beck, also an attorney, argued a historic case when he was hand-picked to defend a black man who was accused of raping a white woman—not an enviable task in the 1930s deep South. As the years passed, Joe Beck became more and more curious about the parallels between his father’s case and the one at the heart of Harper Lee’s famous 1960 novel.

“From the time I was in high school, whenever I mentioned my father’s case, people said, ‘Oh, that’s To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” Beck says. “So it was always there.”

Beck wrote to Lee, who responded that she did not recall the case. But as he dug into his research—including written family history and letters, court records, and newspaper accounts—Beck marveled at the similarities. He also began to understand what the case had cost his father. After the Charles White case, Foster Beck’s trial law practice dried up and he went to work for the army, writing deeds and doing other legal work. As a young man, Joe Beck didn’t think much about it, but writing the book allowed him to meet the father he never fully knew. “I read those court transcripts, and I thought, poor Daddy,” Beck says. “He didn’t want to be working for the army, he wanted to be in court.”

With years of courtroom experience himself, Beck says, “If I could talk to him now, I would talk to him about this case.”

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