Archival Photos

The Willie McGee case began in November 1945, with a rape report in the south Mississippi city of Laurel. At first there was a different suspect, Floyd Nix, and the story was only covered inside the state, receiving little attention elsewhere. This item appeared in the local newspaper, the Laurel Leader-Call.

Obvioiusly, that changed dramatically during the next few years, and, by the end, Willie McGee was famous all over the world. This Daily Worker headline concerns one of several failed federal appeals filed by his defense team in 1950 and 1951.

This 1951 letter by Albert Einstein—in which the scientist claimed that it was obvious to any reasonable person that McGee was innocent—ran as a display ad in the New York Times.

Execution headline in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger

McGee protesters chained to the pillars at the Lincoln Memorial, a day before his execution.

Downtown Laurel, probably in the 1930s. In the 1930s and 1940s, the city was booming thanks to an economy based on the industrial use of agricultural products, especially pine trees.

Another view of downtown Laurel.

Aerial shot of the Eastman-Gardiner lumber company, where Willie McGee’s father, Jasper, once worked.

Masonite, a major Laurel employer during the years of the McGee case. The Masonite process took lumber leftovers and scraps and turned them into a strong material that was used to make everything from support planks to decorative paneling.

Home of mill owner George S. Gardiner. Laurel’s mansion-y look comes up in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which Blanche Dubois moons over an ancestral plantation called Belle Reeve. Houses like this were in town, though, not in the middle of plantation spreads.

Worker housing for the Kamper lumber mill.

Willie McGee in jail. The fact that he's wearing street clothes probably means this picture was taken at the time of his arrest in November 1945.

The Jones County Courthouse in downtown Laurel. The courtroom is on the second floor.

Part of the military contingent that protected McGee from possible lynching at his first trial, in December 1945. The trial lasted only a day and was reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which said there obviously should have been a change of venue.

Jackson-based attorney Dixon Pyles. Pyles defended McGee at his second trial in 1946, and was the first courtroom lawyer to provide him with a serious defense. His appeal of the case resulted in black grand-juror participation during McGee’s third trial—a historic development that helped get the case noticed nationally.

Bella Abzug as a young lawyer in New York. Abzug was hired by the Civil Rights Congress in 1946 (or so) to run McGee's defense. She hired in-state lawyers to argue the case during McGee's three cirtcuit-court trials. She appeared in Mississippi frequently during the appeal years between 1948 and 1951.

John Poole, the Mississippi lawyer who put the greatest amount of effort into the defense of Willie McGee—and who paid the greatest price for doing so.

Rosalee McGee, probably in 1950 or so. For a variety of complicated reasons, she pretended to be Willie McGee's wife and the mother of his four children.

Winifred Feise as a young woman in New Orleans. Feise showed up in Jackson in the summer of 1950 to testify on McGee’s behalf—a risky activity. She’s still alive and was a great person to get to know.

John Poole, a few years before a teenage train-hopping accident that cost him a leg. Typical of him, he overcame his handicap to become a capable amateur boxer.