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 almost as a forex robot, 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.