In the opening pages of The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, Alex Heard briefly outlines McGee’s story — a black man sentenced to die for allegedly raping a white woman in 1945 Mississippi — and describes the national and international attention that it ultimately received. Suspicions lingered about his guilt. Stories persisted about whether his accuser, Willette Hawkins, had actually been raped at all. Protests ensued because of the inequality of his sentence: In Mississippi, a black man could be given the death penalty for rape, but not a white man. William Faulkner and Albert Einstein issued statements asserting McGee’s innocence, and other celebrities offered their own protests, including “Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Jessica Mitford, Norman Mailer, Richard Wright and Frieda Kahlo.” President Harry Truman, ex-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Supreme Court, and Mississippi’s own governor and chief justice were besieged with letters and appeals. And the case was hotly debated around the globe as well: protests outside a London movie theater, editorials in France… even Anton Chekhov’s widow wrote to the Mississippi Supreme Court that “mankind shall not forgive those guilty of this terrible infamy.”
Perhaps surprisingly, in the wake of so much coverage and controversy, Willie McGee’s trial and execution hasn’t persisted in the cultural consciousness as have other stories and images from the long battle for civil rights and racial justice.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the true story of Willie McGee has never been told until now.
Five years of legal battles ensued between McGee’s first trial and his ultimate execution in 1951, and Heard — the editorial director at Outside magazine — devoted five of his own years to researching the story, relying on extensive interviews with many involved in the case (including the descendants of both McGee and Hawkins), on newspaper articles and court transcripts, and even on FBI documents. The result is a magnificent book — a gripping true crime and courtroom drama, a model of dogged reportage, and a compelling history not only of a single incident from the earliest days of the Civil Rights Era but also of that larger movement’s goals and struggles and challenges both from without and from within.
Heard was gracious enough to indulge an interview on the eve of the book’s publication. For more information, check out Heard’s own website here as well as recent stories in the New York Times and on National Public Radio’s Radio Diaries.
Art Taylor: Willie McGee drew national and international attention during the late 1940s and up to his execution in 1951, but the story seems to have been overshadowed by other episodes of racial injustice both before and after: The Scottsboro Boys, for example, or Emmett Till. Why is that, and what’s important about revisiting the story now?
Alex Heard: There are many gaps in our collective memory about old race dramas, episodes that were once seen as important but are now little remembered. As a result, it’s easy to get the mistaken idea that Scottsboro (a multi-defendant black-on-white rape case in Alabama that became an international news story starting in 1931) and the Emmett Till case (which involved the 1955 lynching of a 14-year-old African-American boy, who was killed in Mississippi for whistling as a white woman) have been remembered because they were uniquely awful.
But they weren’t. The thirties, forties, and early fifties saw many similar moments, and I find that most people haven’t heard of any of them. In Martinsville, Virginia, in 1951, seven African-American men were executed over a two-day period for the rape of a white woman. Near Shubuta, Mississippi, in 1942, two black 14-year-olds named Charles Lang and Ernest Green were tortured and lynched because of a flimsy charge that they’d assaulted a white schoolgirl. Martinsville became famous at the time; Lang and Green’s deaths did not. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why, and the list of similarly forgotten or lesser-known stories is extremely long: the Groveland, Florida, rape case; the lynchings of Alonzo Rush, Willie Earle, and John Jones; the Attala County Massacre; the blinding of Isaac Woodard, and on and on.
The McGee case, of course, was famous in its day, and you’re right that it dropped off the radar. I maintain that this happened in large part because McGee was defended by the Communist Party, and we Americans seem to be uncomfortable with giving the far left credit for doing anything positive.
The story still matters a great deal, because it was an important episode in American history — we just forgot about it for a while. The McGee case is also a compelling way to revisit a period of civil rights history that, as you correctly say, is usually overlooked.
In one meeting with the daughters of Willette Hawkins, you were given a map of the house where the crime took place. You write: I kept staring [at it], scribbling notes on the diagram until my wife, Susan, reminded me it wasn’t mine to write on. It’s an evocative image — a story you’re telling that many people might not think is, really, yours to tell. What drew you to Willie McGee? And kept drawing you back to it over the five years you’ve devoted to this project?
I took a brief interest in the McGee case back in 1979, when my journalism adviser at Vanderbilt, Jim Leeson, played a tape recording he made in 1951 of a radio broadcast that went out on the night of McGee’s execution. (That broadcast, by the way, has been getting renewed attention in recent days thanks to an NPR documentary that made use of it and Leeson’s death last week.) In 2004, I read a book that briefly mentioned McGee, which renewed my interest in it.
I started looking for information about the case, at first as a hobby, and I realized pretty quickly that the story of McGee’s trials and electrocution hadn’t been told at length and hadn’t been told with any degree of accuracy. As I got deeper into it, I realized that most of what people think they know about the case is wrong. I committed myself to doing the work required to tell it accurately, which turned out to be the hardest reporting job I’ve ever faced.
Perhaps more than any other state, Mississippi seems to provide its native sons and daughters a unique challenge — a need to come to terms with a difficult past. I think of works as wide-ranging as Eudora Welty’s Where is the Voice Coming From? and Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle and W. Ralph Eubanks’ Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past, and the various degrees of objectivity and subjectivity that impact each work. Where did you feel the most need to distance yourself from this story? Where did your own relationship with the state serve as an asset? And did you ever feel an impulse to defend a Mississippi that’s been much-maligned in so many ways?
The fact that I’m a native Mississippian was not a problem, only a benefit. I haven’t lived there since I was a teenager, so there was never a question of my take on the facts being clouded by old loyalties or blind spots. I loved going back to Mississippi on reporting trips — it’s a great state full of hospitable, smart people who thrive on storytelling. As for how Mississippi comes off in the book, the facts of the story do the work for me. There’s bad and good in this tale, but it doesn’t break down in a simplistic way. Two of the book’s heroes — defense lawyers named Dixon Pyles and John Poole — were natives of my hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. They’ve been overlooked or short-shrifted in all previous accounts of the story. It’s a thrill to bring them to life on the page.
We think of the narrative of Civil Rights Movement as focusing primarily on race and region. But this story is complicated by another factor you’ve already mentioned: Communism. Was that angle of the story a surprise to you? And how does the conflict between the NAACP and the CRC complicate the larger story of the beginnings of that struggle?
McGee’s defense was handled by a Communist-linked civil rights group called the Civil Rights Congress, which paid for his defense and publicized the cause. Before researching this book, I had no idea that such an outfit even existed, so it was a major surprise. Throughout its short lifespan (1946 to 1956), the CRC carried on its fights while being under constant siege by the federal government, which wanted to drive it out of existence because it was red, and facing bitter opposition from the NAACP, which had to stiff-arm the CRC to avoid charges, always lurking in the wings, than any move toward civil rights was Communist-inspired.
The fact that McGee was supported by Communists certainly doesn’t bother me, but it bothered people at the time. Individuals who otherwise might have been sympathetic to him — including many liberal Democrats — shunned him. Many mainstream African-American newspapers, including The Chicago Defender, muted their coverage of McGee for the same reason.
You write of McGee’s story being caught in a mysterious tangle of disputed realities. As much as this book is about the story of a crime and a series of trials and an execution and its aftermath, it also seems to have an important epistemological angle: How is the truth formed? Where does truth come from? How do various truths collide? My questions for you: How much of all that distortion (purposeful or not) was a challenge to telling this story? And how much of that is the story ultimately being told here?
The McGee case shows what happens when we approach the past with preconceived notions about the truth, ones that are grounded in high-minded notions about what we think of as right and wrong today. That sounds like a good way to go, but with this story, it gets you nowhere. This was a reporting job, pure and simple, and as my old teacher Jim Leeson used to say, the only way to do it right was to get out there and do the work.