About the Book

The Eyes of Willie McGee is a true story of race, rape, trial, punishment, politics, history, and family set partly in the past and partly in the present. Primarily, it’s the first complete account of a famous episode from the early days of the civil rights movement: a Mississippi courtroom drama that made national and international headlines during a five-year legal battle that started right after World War II.

But it’s also about my attempts to figure out what really happened during this mysterious event, a process that ended up taking five years of steady spare-time work. (Meaning nights, weekends, and vacations. I have a day job as an editor at Outside magazine.) What I learned—through thousands of hours of archival research and reporting, dozens of interviews with relatives of the main characters, Freedom of Information requests, and a few lucky breaks—was that much of what people think they know about the case is wrong, and that it needed to be researched and revisited in fundamental ways.

I suppose something like this happens often with old controversies, as years pass and facts mutate in memory. But the McGee story was a particularly fascinating subject to explore, because it involved two types of victimized individuals who usually would get a sympathetic hearing from people of conscience: a woman who made a convincing claim that she was raped, and a man who said he didn’t do it, and that he was condemned because of racism. The man lost his life—as I make clear in the book’s opening sentence, McGee was ultimately executed—but the woman lost quite a bit as well. In the aftermath, she was thrown under a bus by journalists and historians who were (and still are) surprisingly sloppy about conveying her side of the story.

The woman was white, the man was black, and the whole thing began in the fearsome realm of a small Mississippi town in 1945, creating a real-life plotline that echoes the rape-trial scenes depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird. The accused assailant, Willie McGee, eventually claimed that the woman had seduced him, trapping him into a long-running love affair and lying about it once her husband found out. That charge wasn’t made public until very late during McGee’s long legal ordeal, which involved three circuit-court trials in as many years, several reversals and stays, and four failed bids for a full review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite all this procedure, McGee never got a completely fair trial or equal protection in the appeals courts. Fear of lynching prevented his defense attorneys from raising the affair allegation at the local level. When it was finally spelled out during his state and federal appeals, the basic response from judges was, “You should have brought that up at the trials.”

McGee was sentenced to death for the crime of rape—a penalty that, in Mississippi, was only applied to blacks back then—and he was executed just after midnight on May 8, 1951, dispatched in the county courthouse in Laurel, Mississippi, in a portable electric chair that was set up inside the same courtroom where he’d been convicted. A standing-room-only crowd of grimly attentive white people looked on from the benches and aisles. Outside, a thousand more white spectators, including children, stood around the courthouse, laughing and cheering.

McGee’s story was especially controversial because his defense was paid for and managed by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), the New York-based civil rights arm of the Communist Party USA, which existed for 10 years, starting in 1946, as a competitor to the NAACP. The CRC’s lead lawyer was a young Bella Abzug, later to gain fame as a congresswoman and feminist, who worked with several white, male, Mississippi-based lawyers who performed the actual courtroom duties, a thankless and dangerous task. Abzug took over once the case reached the appeals phase, bringing attention to McGee’s cause in an uneasy partnership with William L. Patterson, an African-American Communist who ran the CRC starting in 1948.

This conflict between two irreconcilable sides—southern segregationists versus northern Communists and various left-wing progressives who worked with them—led to rancor, violence, and the use of anything-goes tactics as the legal battle ground on. At the time, the most astute observers of the debate that formed around the case—including African-American journalist Carl Rowan, who wrote a chapter about McGee in a 1952 book called South of Freedom—recognized that both sides were capable of saying and doing anything to get their way. Rowan concluded that, because of this, it was impossible to know whether McGee or the woman was telling the truth.

But that note of doubt disappeared in the years and decades after the case ended. Since then, the woman—whose name was Willette Hawkins—has been demonized by journalists, academics, and bloggers, most of whom didn’t bother to read the trial transcripts, instead refracting their views through a prism of guilt or anger about the past. If you troll around on the Web today, you’ll see it stated with certainty that the affair was proven and that Mrs. Hawkins concocted the rape charge to save her neck once it came to light. A few months after McGee died, an African-American poet and actress named Beaulah Richardson—who, under the stage name Beah Richards, was nominated for an Oscar in 1968 for her supporting role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—set the tone in a poem called “A Black Woman Speaks.” Its chief villain was Willette Hawkins, “the depraved, enslaved, adulterous woman, whose lustful demands denied, lied and killed what she could not possess.”

Richardson, alas, didn’t know what she was talking about, and when I started looking into the case several years ago, I didn’t either, assuming at first that the affair had been certifiably proven in a court of law. It’s not that simple, not by a long-shot. And when you look into this case deeply, you see a story in which both sides have been hurt by different forms of injustice and distortion.

I had heard of McGee many years earlier, during my years at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Our journalism advisor for student publications, a former A.P. reporter named Jim Leeson, owned a tape recording, which he’d made himself when he was 20, of a radio broadcast that went out from the courthouse lawn on the night McGee was executed. Leeson sometimes played the tape (which you can hear yourself under the tab called Execution Broadcast) to remind students of how dramatically things had changed in the South since he was our age.

I never forgot the spooky experience of listening to that old recording, and I was reminded of it again a few years ago, when I was browsing in a used bookstore and came across a volume that devoted a few pages to the McGee case. With my curiosity aroused, I started looking into it. One thing led to another, and I eventually decided to write a book. My chief goal was to tell the story accurately, relying as much as possible on original sources, with an eye toward answering fundamental questions about this long-dead tale, starting with: Who was telling the truth, Willie or Willette?

I was equally intrigued by the amazing level of notoriety the case achieved in its time. When the story began—with McGee’s arrest and conviction in late 1945—it was little-noticed outside of Mississippi and in the pages of left-wing and African-American newspapers. By 1951, it had become a famous cause all over the nation and world. The governor of Mississippi received at least 15,000 letters demanding that McGee be freed; President Truman got 10,000 pieces of similar correspondence from the U.S. and abroad. Albert Einstein issued a public statement, which ran as a display ad in the New York Times, asserting that McGee was innocent. Novelists Howard Fast and Norman Mailer got involved, as did Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, William Faulkner, Frida Kahlo, Jessica Mitford, and many others. The case made news all over Europe and was much-trumpeted in China and the Soviet Union, whose governments used it as an example of American hypocrisy on race. In 1950, Richard Nixon was in Switzerland making a speech when somebody slapped a bumper sticker on his official car that protested “the legalized lynching of Willie McGee.”

There were dozens of so-called “legal lynching” cases in the 1940s. Why did McGee stand out? My hunt for answers to that and other questions led to a search that was difficult and frustrating at times. But it was also a life-changing experience that gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with the state where I was originally from (I was born in Jackson but haven’t lived there since 1972), meet dozens of fascinating people, and learn about a period of American history—the civil rights movement before there was a civil rights movement as we think of it today—that I knew nothing about.

I hope you enjoy the result.

ALEX HEARD

9 responses to “About the Book

  1. Alex,

    I think I will appreciate this book. I was 11 at the time of the Willie McGee execution and my father was one of the protesters present the night of the execution, and I knew where he was and why he was there. It was a particularly poignant event, as I attended public school in Harlem where my classmates were 90% “Negro”, the word used at that time to describe people we now identify as African American. I was indeed imbued with the knowledge of our American system of injustice to African-Americans, as well as to the injustice of investigative agencies pursuing people who opposed the injustice.

    I hesitate to listen to the tape made the night of the execution, as I was present at the demonstration the day of the murder/execution of Ethel & Julius Rosenberg, and it stayed with me for life.

    In 1960, I drove thru Mississippi with my husband, on our way to Berkeley, CA following our marriage, and to join my parents and brothers now living in Berkeley. We stopped in a Greyhound Bus station, and I confronted what I knew from my father, and newspapers stories, the ever present “whites only signs” on the water fountains, bathrooms, and lunch counters which only served the “white side”. I remember feeling sickened, and recognizing the terror of what would have happened had I been driving with any of my “colored” friends with whom I went to school.

    I am glad you have decided to tell this story, and look forward to reading it. By the way, if the photo is of you, at the top of this website, you and my brother Bob, a civil rights activist and participant in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, have an uncanny likeness to one and other.

    I look forward to reading the book, and appreciate the manner in which you went about gathering information. Besides which I think stylistically, I will enjoy your writing.

    Thank you,

    Phyllis Mandel

  2. Just listened to a short documentary called ¨outlook¨on bbc world service radio today about Willie McGee from his grand-daughter,
    I knew the story but sadly I forgot the circumstance’s…so I googled his name

  3. I also listened to the BBC ‘outlook’ feature on Willie McGee last night 06/02/2010 which got me interested to ‘google’ as well….I hate to think what everyday life would’ve been like, being coloured in the South, back then.

  4. michelle johnson

    Fear of lynching stopped his attorneys from alleging the affair? Are you sure? Or did they just not think of it until the media printed it? I believe that was the reason the media lost their law suit. Perhaps you better go back and reread your own book.

    • Well, wouldn’t fear of being killed (lynched) sort of frighten you too? With your comment, I feel we have to look at the state, mind set of those who lived in the south, mindset of anyone who is racist period. Lynch mobs and mob rule was the form of “justice” that existed back then. If the man you were defending was of a race that was thought to be less than nothing; it is not so much that the idea of an affair wasn’t thought of, I’m sure that someone in that group of attorneys had to have thought about that, but fear, as we know is a VERY powerful tool, so that probably prevented that person from coming forth with that idea. Now, in today’s society, if there was a case like this, then I’m sure that the very idea that a woman being the “aggressor” most likely would’ve been presented in the very early stages of the trial. The story of Willie McGee is tragic, and we must never forget that, but I strongly feel it was the condition of our country in that era.

  5. Willie McGee story is a verisimilitude of injustice imposed upon the African Americans. Ever since i heard the documentary over the BBC radio i still can”t comprehend what on earth should some one be punished based on his race or color.

  6. It is by chance I heard the BBC program on Willie Mcgee and was rivited although not too shocked having learnt alot about the “South” I am interested to know did Willete ever say anything on the matter afterwards to contradict the rape allegations she made?

  7. Bobbie Ray Watkins

    I was born in Laurel Mississippi in 1947; I remember the night Willie McGee was executed because the lights blinked on and off…back then, adults didn’t talk about such things in front of children, so it was until I was 25 years old, that I remember the blinking lights and asked my mom what happened; I wrote a play based on what she told me…every actor in that play cried; they said the play pulled on all of their emotions; a lady in the audience cried uncontrollably; I was afraid for a moment to see such emotions rise; but I proved to myself that I could capture emotions in my words…the play was read at 11th street Theatre in Chicago in 1987…I was encouraged to continue…but never did. I thought perhaps people had seen enough of that kind of thing…there was so much of it. I was happy to hear about your book; I intend to purchase a copy to see more details. Thanks for posting pictures of Mr. McGee…I had never seen a picture of him before. If you have time, please contact me.

    As ever,
    Bobbie Ray Watkins

  8. I am very much so looking forward to reading this book. I came across it yesterday as I was perusing books in a book store, and it sort of jumped out at me. I’ve been researching about this topic for a few hours now, and I am completely engaged in it. It sickens and angers me that this, as well as other horrific events took place in this country and for what?

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