A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South
Harper: 404 pp., $26.99
In Jim Crow's dark closet, countless skeletons lie moldering and forgotten. For every "cold case" prosecution that brings a doddering ex-Klansman to trial, dozens more victims await their journey down the long "arc of justice." Now, another tragedy has come to light through the diligent detective work of author Alex Heard.
When Willie McGee was executed in 1951, the civil-rights movement was just starting to stir. "Whites only" signs still littered the South. Segregation seemed likely to prevail, as George Wallace would proclaim, today, tomorrow and forever. And a black man accused of raping a white woman was more often dragged to the nearest tree than dragged into court.
Yet as Heard reveals in "The Eyes of Willie McGee," something made this case different. Indeed, the forgotten story, while it mirrors "To Kill a Mockingbird," has all the complexity of Faulkner.
On the surface, the facts seem all too familiar. A black man accused. A white woman's honor violated. A town in uproar. A lynch mob fended off. A hasty trial. A swift verdict. And under Mississippi law in 1946, a death sentence for rape — if the convicted was black.
But Heard, editorial director of Outside, finds the saga more nuanced. At first, he calls it "a ghost story." Later, while taking his readers on road trips to find ancestors and eyewitnesses, he admits to "going in circles." His book sometimes does the same, yet as a Mississippi native, Heard does a deft job of untangling the Magnolia State's snarled web of race, sex and politics. In the end, however, the truth about Willie McGee remains as murky as a Mississippi swamp.
This much is known: On Nov. 2, 1945, a housewife in Laurel, Miss., claimed she had awoke at daybreak and sensed a prowler in her room. Willette Hawkins' infant daughter was in bed with her. Her husband was sleeping at the back of the house. Terrified, Hawkins put out her hand and felt "a bushy Negro head." The man crawled onto her and that was all the jury needed to hear. Did the man identify himself? No. Did she get a look at him? No. Did she fight back? Shout for her husband? No, that would have woken her child. Forensic evidence was minimal. The defense did not call a single witness. Willie McGee was too terrified to even speak in court. The all-white jury rendered its verdict in three minutes.
McGee might have gone swiftly to the electric chair had it not been for forgotten members of that forgotten group — courageous Southern liberals. For six years, McGee sat on death row while lawyers took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. McGee endured a second trial, and then a third. When his execution was postponed at the last minute, a lynch mob loomed. Ultimately, the McGee case sparked FBI investigations, worldwide headlines and protests in major American cities.
Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Congress took up McGee's cause. The organization's communist ties scared off the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and convinced Mississippi that McGee's defense was another "Red plot." By 1950, when publicity had aroused broader support, Albert Einstein, William Faulkner and Norman Mailer demanded clemency or a new trial. Mississippi's governor received 15,000 letters pleading for mercy. And future Congresswoman Bella Abzug was in Mississippi defending McGee.
Painstakingly investigating McGee's ordeal, Heard probes the secret too shocking to mention in court. Seems the good folk of Laurel had long suspected that McGee and Hawkins were "carryin' on." Seems the white woman persuaded the black man to murder her husband. But McGee backed out at the last minute. Enter the husband. Cry "Rape!" in the Deep South and let slip the dogs of race war. But was the rumor true?
Before his first trial, McGee told his lawyers about the "consensual affair." Fearing a lynch mob, they kept the secret. Preparing for another trial, Abzug got word of it, investigated, became convinced, yet refused to bring it up in her appeal. "No jury was going to believe it," she remembered. "Challenging the word of a white woman just wasn't done." And so the story haunts Heard's book. The affair became especially ghostly when, as a death house strategy, Abzug finally filed an affidavit describing the affair in details that differed markedly from McGee's first account.
Heard's circular investigation of the alleged affair is thorough but also suggests the flaws in his book. While he is dogged in his pursuit of the truth, he is far from skilled at revealing it. Just as he leaves no stone unturned, he deletes no digression. And so, his narrative wanders from incident to aside, from interview to history, from first person to third. Heard also dilutes his story with needless detail. Readers must plow through biographies of tangential figures, descriptions of unrelated lynchings (I counted six), and a full report on the 1948 presidential election. Heard just can't stick to the story long enough to give it the momentum it deserves. As a result, "The Eyes of Willie McGee" reads like a long magazine article rather than the gripping history it could have been.
At midnight on May 8, 1951, with a crowd of 1,500 outside and live radio coverage across Mississippi, McGee went to the electric chair. Writing to his wife the night before, he sensed his larger importance: "You no (sic) I am innocent. Tell the people again and again I never did commit this crime. Tell them that the real reason they are going to take my life is to Keep the Negro down in the south. They can't do this if you and the children keep on fighting.…"
McGee was mourned in poems, novels and memoirs. But while he clearly did not get a fair trial, was he innocent? Was Willette Hawkins really the guilty party? "The Eyes of Willie McGee" leaves us wondering, and wondering how many other ghosts remain in Jim Crow's closet.
Watson is the author of several books, including "Sacco & Vanzetti" and "Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy."