By Alex Heard
What begets a work like 'The Eyes of Willie McGee,' a book that should be must reading for serious students of 20th century U.S. history? For journalist Alex Heard the moment of conception began a few years ago while browsing in a used bookstore. Scanning a history of lynching, Heard stumbled upon a reference to a case in which the African American McGee had been convicted of raping a white woman named Willette Hawkins in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1945. Heard remembered hearing about the case while working on the student newspaper at Vanderbilt University in 1979. The publication’s adviser had played an old tape he had recorded live from the scene of McGee’s execution in 1951.
A native of Mississippi who was too young “to grasp what was going on” in his state when James Meredith attempted to enroll at Ole Miss or when Medgar Evers was gunned down, Heard explains that the book on lynching “made me want to know more, not only about McGee, but about the history of Mississippi and the South between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s. It was an important and violent period…and it is usually skipped in standard histories of the civil rights movement.”
Reading that McGee had insisted he was innocent and claimed that the sex with Mrs. Hawkins was consensual further piqued Heard’s curiosity. So, too, did the fact that as execution loomed McGee’s plight had become a cause célèbre, with American icons like Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, and Josephine Baker pleading for clemency if not exoneration. Unable to find a full account of the case, Heard set out to pin down what he calls “the moving target” of McGee’s guilt or innocence.
Based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is currently editorial director of Outside magazine, Heard commenced a journey that would take him back home and introduce him to a cast of characters, some dead, some still alive, some noble and some decidedly ignoble. Among those with whom he spent time and shared notes were the children and grandchildren of the two principals. Understandably McGee’s descendants sought to clear his name, while Hawkins’s relatives were committed to eradicating the belief that still lingers in some quarters that Willette and Willie had been having an affair and that she had cried rape to protect her reputation.
Some facts are not in dispute. On November 2, 1945, Mrs. Hawkins, a thirty-two-year-old housewife, told police that a man had broken into her house in Laurel while she was asleep with her sick eighteen-month-old daughter beside her. She said that the man crawled on top of her and threatened to kill her and her daughter if she talked. She acknowledged that she could not see his face, but she knew he was black by virtue of his hair’s texture.
McGee was arrested the next day on unrelated charges that he was in unauthorized possession of a truck owned by his employer, the Laurel Wholesale Grocery Company. Police soon noted that he had not shown up for work and that friends stated he had been in the Hawkins’ neighborhood around the time of the alleged rape. Soon after being taken into custody, McGee confessed. But had he done so voluntarily or had he been beaten as he later claimed?
The first order of business for the state was to keep McGee alive in order to stand trial. Lynch mobs frequently took the law into their own hands when a black person was accused of raping, murdering, or even stealing from a white person. Heard offers several examples in which locals took black prisoners from jailhouses and subjected them to horrific torture before killing them. Such action was so ingrained in the Southern way of life that even a progressive like Faulkner could pronounce, “But there is one curious things about mobs. Like our juries they have a way of being right.”
One month after the alleged rape, McGee went to trial. Mrs. Hawkins testified about the assault, but did not identify him as her attacker. McGee’s confession and his supposed presence in the neighborhood were the most damning pieces of evidence. By this time, McGee had become mute and appeared to be mentally unhinged—a turn of events his accusers believed was a sham. After a one-day trial, an all white jury deliberated for less than three minutes before finding him guilty. Although no whites in Mississippi convicted of raping blacks were sentenced to death, blacks were routinely given the death penalty when their victims were white. McGee was sentenced to be electrocuted on January 7, 1946.
McGee’s court-appointed attorney filed an appeal, arguing among other things that the trial judge should have granted a change of venue from hostile Laurel. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and ordered a second trial. This time the jury took eleven minutes to convict McGee.
Again McGee’s attorneys appealed and again a new trial was ordered—this time on the grounds that the exclusion of blacks from juries denied equal protection under the law. This inequity was resolved before the third trial when the names of three black men appeared on the grand jury roll under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Years later one of the prosecutors boasted that the State had amended the roll to include two black doctors whom it knew would not rock the boat.
During the first two trials, McGee had claimed he was not with Mrs. Hawkins on the night in question. Now, he said he had been; they were having an affair. He had not revealed their relationship earlier because he feared that such an allegation could have led to mob violence.
By this time McGee’s plight had captured the attention of civil rights groups and organizations of American communists. Heard’s chronicle of the tension between these bodies with different agendas is eye-opening. When the Civil Rights Congress, an arm of the Communist Party, undertook McGee’s defense, the NAACP, President Harry Truman, and the usually outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt chose to sit on the sidelines rather than be tainted red.
Leading McGee’s defense was a young lawyer from New York named Bella Abzug. Heard’s portrait of the future congresswoman as well as other local and national figures infuses the book with life. Characters like the bigoted Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo may be forgotten by the history books—but shouldn’t be.
Bringing these characters to our attention is but one of Heard’s many strengths. The book is painstakingly researched and fair. Does the author reach a conclusion about McGee’s guilt or innocence or whether a consensual affair took place? No. Does he reach a conclusion about the fairness of the proceedings? Yes.
Not too long before McGee was executed, several hundred supporters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. Among them was the novelist Howard Fast. Heard quotes Fast’s description of the day. “(O)nly one person, a soldier, asked why all this fuss over one life? Then we walked together into the shrine where Lincoln sits and the boy seemed confused and regretful over what he had said. Another visitor answered the young soldier. ‘Sometimes one life becomes a symbol of a million lives.’”
In Willie McGee, Heard has found such a symbol.
Steve Fiffer, co-author of "A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees."
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