ADVANCE PRAISE FOR THE EYES OF WILLIE MCGEE
“The case of Willie McGee is an enduring mystery, but there’s no doubt he was the victim of a primitive and unfair judicial system. Alex Heard’s excellent account of his life and death is tragic, sad, and very compelling.” —John Grisham, author of The Innocent Man
“The Willie McGee case became one of the celebrated causes at the dawn of the civil rights movement. In this riveting personal journey of discovery and investigation, Alex Heard explores the political and social forces at play and then peels them away to reveal the fascinating human drama under it all. It’s like a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird, but with even more subtleties, drama, and complexities.” —Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein
“As a son of Mississippi and a knowledgeable student of its conflicted past, Alex Heard presents a gripping account of one of the most controversial legal dramas of the civil rights era, in a volume that provides intriguing insight into the broader complexities of race relations in the South at that time. It reads like a novel, but with real-life characters who are unforgettable.” —William Winter, former governor of Mississippi and founder of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation
“Alex Heard has peeled back the tarp on the American South ten long years before Rosa Parks boarded the bus. Willie McGee was and remains a powerful symbol of corruption and racism, but he is far more than that. He’s the epicenter of an addictive mystery that draws you in even as it repels you. The story, as Heard masterfully tells it, belies our easy assumptions—about race, human nature, and the notion of justice. This is an extraordinary book.” —Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Packing for Mars
“A stout argument can now be made that the execution of Willie McGee in 1951 launched the civil rights movement. A stunning narrative achievement based on a bevy of new documentary evidence. Essential reading for all Americans.” —Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge
“The Willie McGee case–a tale as rich and important as any in the history of the American civil rights movement–deserves a writer like Alex Heard. With humanity, subtlety, and persistence, he cracks open this Jim Crow mystery and shows how it foreshadowed, and shaped, the massive shakeup in the American South that would occur in the decades after McGee’s death.” —David Plotz, author of Good Book
“The story of Willie McGee was one of the murkiest and most haunting cases to come out of the forcibly segregated, violence-ridden South in its time. Alex Heard does far more than straighten out facts and offer compelling new research on an ambiguous rape case. He uses McGee’s story to shed light on an America we’d like to forget, a time when mob rule and lynching prevailed, when the Red Scare loomed larger than the need for a fair trial, and when homegrown Communists were willing to bend the truth and vilify a woman they knew little about—in order to make McGee’s execution an international symbol of everything that was wrong with the American way of life.” —Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will
“The Eyes of Willie McGee recreates a drama of race, crime, and politics that helped set the stage for the McCarthy era and the civil rights revolution. Heard’s story reads like Radical Chic set in 1940s Mississippi–it’s a gripping, disturbing treat.” —Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy
“Engrossing, thoroughly researched, moving, intense, instructive, and masterfully written, The Eyes of Willie McGee grabs hold of the past and makes it vivid and remarkably relevant. A brilliant powerhouse of a book.” —Martin Clark, author of The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living
“In this gripping story of a world at once remote yet painfully familiar, Alex Heard has crafted a memorable narrative of a civil rights case that deserves a larger place in American memory.” —Jon Meacham, author of American Lion
Mother Jones, May/June 2010
Publisher’s Weekly, March 29, 2010
The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, by Alex Heard.
An iconic criminal case—a black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman in Mississippi in 1945—exposes the roiling tensions of the early civil rights era in this provocative study. McGee’s prosecution garnered international protests—he was championed by the Communist Party and defended by a young lawyer named Bella Abzug (later a New York City congresswoman and cofounder of the National Women’s Political Caucus), while luminaries from William Faulkner to Albert Einstein spoke out for him—but journalist Heard (Apocalypse Pretty Soon) finds the saga rife with enigmas. The case against McGee, hinging on a possibly coerced confession, was weak and the legal proceedings marred by racial bias and intimidation. (During one of his trials, his lawyers fled for their lives without delivering summations.) But Heard contends that McGee’s story—that he and the victim, Willette Hawkins, were having an affair—is equally shaky. The author’s extensive research delves into the documentation of the case, the public debate surrounding it, and the recollections of McGee and Hawkins’s family members. Heard finds no easy answers, but his nuanced, evocative portrait of the passions enveloping McGee’s case is plenty revealing.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2010
The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, by Alex Heard. A thorough revisiting of the 1945 Mississippi black-white rape case that ended in the electric chair.
Determining that there were too many holes in the case against Willie McGee—despite three trials, appeals and public outcry—Outside editorial director Heard (Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, 1999), born in Jackson, Miss., decided to start his investigation from scratch, along the way consulting primary sources, trial transcripts, FBI documents and archived papers. McGee, a black grocery-delivery driver in Laurel, was accused of raping a white married woman and mother of three, Willette Hawkins, after breaking into her home at dawn on Nov. 2, 1945. By Mississippi law, the death penalty could be applied for rape, though only African-Americans had suffered that punishment.
Heard wades through reams of obfuscation around the case—much of it concocted by desperate supporters associated with the Civil Rights Congress and McGee’s lawyers, including the young Bella Abzug—alleging that McGee and Hawkins were actually having an illicit affair, that Hawkins might have been pregnant by McGee and that blackmail was involved. To reach a sense of the facts, the author tracked down several of the children of both McGee and Hawkins and exposed some convincing angles, such as that Hawkins was traumatized by the rape, and that McGee’s real wife had been abandoned, while the woman presented to the public as his wife was someone he had only met in jail and corresponded with.
Heard does a fine job presenting horrific documentation of the practice of lynching in the South—McGee initially confessed out of terror for his life—and of the general culture of racism perpetrated by Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo and others. Due to the suspicion of Communist intentions at the time, the widely accepted defamation of Hawkins’s character and the outrageous injustice against blacks systematically practiced in the South, there is no way to discover “what really happened.” However, the author undertakes painstaking detective work to engagingly explore an era of deep-seated racial hatred.
“Nuancing History,” The Santa Fean, April-May 2010
In Alex Heard’s sober, methodical, compelling new book, The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, the 52-year-old editorial director of Santa Fe’s Outside magazine and author of 1999’s Apocalypse Pretty Soon turns his unbiased gaze upon a 1945 incident in which McGee, a black man in Laurel, Mississippi, was convicted and later executed for sexually assaulting a white woman.
Although it’s an all-too-common tale of racial injustice, two things really piqued Heard: One, the key role communists played in McGee’s case (particularly, the involvement of the communist Civil Rights Congress, headed by a black man, no less), and two, the level of national and international protest and sympathy in favor of McGee, who became a cause célèbre. “I had no idea that the communists were such a prime motivating force in society back then,” says Heard, a Jackson native who first learned of McGee’s case from one of his journalism professors at Vanderbilt University. “So it’s sort of a secret history. And a real Cold War thing.”
On the other hand, he adds, “It’s also a To Kill a Mockingbird kind of saga, but what really happened is so much more nuanced.” More nuanced and intriguing than what’s found in history books (most of which make almost no mention of the CRC) or media coverage. Most accounts of the case, for example, focus on social activist Bella Abzug’s involvement in McGee’s trials, though she only attended one, while almost completely ignoring the two local white lawyers who represented McGee at his second trial—maybe because they weren’t as noble or idealistic as Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. And, at a recent meeting of historians, one paper presented it as a slam dunk that McGee was innocent. While Heard makes clear that nothing in the case was—forgive the pun—black and white, he eschewed soapboxing as much as possible. “I tried to avoid any cause,” he says, “and not make up the readers’ minds for them.”
In writing Eyes, Heard spent several years interviewing family members from both McGee’s and the plaintiff’s side, pored through CRC documents in Washington, D.C., and drew inspiration from Dan T. Carter’s 1968 book, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (about the famous 1930s case in which eight young black men were sentenced to death). “Anytime you research something on your own, you find all this information that’s left out,” he says. “That’s the fun. The truth is so much more interesting than the boiled-down version.” As is Heard’s book.