THE EYES OF WILLIE McGEE
BY ALEX HEARD
A gripping saga of race and retribution in the Deep South and a story whose haunting details echo the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird
In 1945, Willie McGee, a young African-American man from Laurel, Mississippi, was sentenced to death for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. At first, McGee's case was barely noticed, covered only in hostile Mississippi newspapers and far-left publications such as the Daily Worker. Then Bella Abzug, a young New York labor lawyer, was hired by the Civil Rights Congress—an aggressive civil rights organization with ties to the Communist Party of the United States—to oversee McGee's defense. Together with William Patterson, the son of a slave and a devout believer in the need for revolutionary change, Abzug and a group of white Mississippi lawyers risked their lives to plead McGee's case. After years of court battles, McGee's supporters flooded President Harry S. Truman and the U.S. Supreme Court with clemency pleas, and famous Americans—including William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Norman Mailer, and Josephine Baker—spoke out on McGee's behalf.
By the time the case ended in 1951 with McGee's public execution in Mississippi's infamous traveling electric chair, "Free Willie McGee" had become a rallying cry among civil rights activists, progressives, leftists, and Communist Party members. Their movement had succeeded in convincing millions of people worldwide that McGee had been framed and that the real story involved a consensual love affair between him and Mrs. Hawkins—one that she had instigated and controlled. As Heard discovered, this controversial theory is a doorway to a tangle of secrets that spawned a legacy of confusion, misinformation, and pain that still resonates today. The mysteries surrounding McGee's case live on in this provocative tale of justice in the Deep South.
Based on exhaustive documentary research—court transcripts, newspaper reports, archived papers, letters, FBI documents, and the recollections of family members on both sides—Mississippi native Alex Heard tells a moving and unforgettable story that evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, North and South, in America.
Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine. He has worked as an editor and writer at The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Wired, and The New Republic, and is the author of Apocalypse Pretty Soon. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
THE THE EYES OF WILLIE McGEE by Alex Heard takes place in Mississippi back in 1945. This was a time when the South was still filled with racial tensions and divided loyalties, and we had just begun to see a tiny glimmer of hope that some small changes were taking place. This famous case is said to be the basis for Harper Lee’s famous TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD which celebrates its 50th anniversary in what many say is a classic and THE American novel. The main premise is that a black man was purported to have raped a white woman. Supposedly Willie McGee had gone into Willette Hawkins’ home and threatened her as she lie in bed with her baby by her side. He forced her to do the things he demanded and she complied out of fear for herself and her child. Then he disappeared back into the night. What was then reported was that she ran into the streets naked and screaming but did she really? Was she really the victim here or was he?
At the time in Mississippi, the Klu Klux Klan was alive and well and blacks were threatened and killed for all manner of things from not getting out of a white man’s way fast enough to trying to vote. When a black was accused their punishment was usually swift and could take the form of an angry mob and a lynching which was supposedly legal. Even blacks returning from the war and fighting for America were told that they still had no rights.
The case of Willette Hawkins and Willie McGee, however, caught the eye of some very important liberal figures including Bella Abzug who defended McGee, and others like Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. It also caught the attention of the blacks enough to rally behind him as they spread the word, or perhaps rumor, that McGee and Hawkins had been having a secret affair for over a year. In those times, no respectable white woman would take up with a black man so Hawkins reputation came into question. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court but McGee was found guilty and electrocuted while Willette Hawkins and her family lived with the shame for many generations as the question of what really happened was never really answered. Instead, a decision, many say, was handed down based on racism.
Alex Heard did extensive research as the story comes to life through his well-written words. Heard contacted both families and along with that his research much is based on personal recall. I think Heard did enough to convince the reader that the story he told was sad but true. In a letter that Willie McGee wrote to his wife, he said “Tell the people that the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro down” is perhaps the most concrete and sadly descriptive evidence found. Take your time reading this book as it is an important one…summer has to have some balance to the light fare we mostly all like to take part in, now doesn’t it?
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