July 2010

Joan Quigley

nonfiction

The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South by Alex Heard

On May 8, 1951, in Laurel, Mississippi, a 37-year-old African-American man named Willie McGee was electrocuted for raping Willette Hawkins, a 32-year-old white housewife and mother of three. More than five years earlier, in November 1945, Hawkins told police she had been attacked in the predawn darkness, while her eighteen-month-old daughter lay next to her, by a man who threatened to kill her and her child if she didn’t remain quiet and submit; when he was done, he said he would come back and kill her if she told anyone what had happened. It was too dark to see her assailant’s face, Hawkins said, but she knew he was black by the texture of his hair. 

The next day, the police arrested McGee, a grocery-truck driver who had failed to report to work. One month later, after a trial that lasted one day, an all-white jury sentenced McGee to death after deliberating for less than three minutes. McGee’s conviction spawned a series of court battles, with appeals in state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. “Free Willie McGee” emerged as a call to arms among leftists and Communist Party members, many of whom believed he had been framed to hide an allegedly consensual affair with Hawkins. In the years and months leading up to McGee’s execution, his conviction and death sentence emerged as a Jim Crow and Cold War-era he-said, she-said with a man’s life hanging in the balance. 

In his new book, The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, Alex Heard undertakes to unravel the case’s mysteries, scouring archives, newspaper clippings, FBI files and trial transcripts for clues. “Somewhere along the line, it stopped being only about verifiable facts,” he writes. “It had become a ghost story, a malleable myth whose realities, lessons, and undercurrents varied tremendously, depending on the perspective of the teller.”  

Heard, a Mississippi native and the editorial director of Outside magazine, excels as a raconteur, narrating his efforts to track down witnesses and probe their memories about what did -- or didn’t -- happen. At one point, he convened a meeting among two of Hawkins’s adult daughters, who believed their mother had been raped, and a then-elderly African-American woman who had known their mother at the time of the alleged incident and believed Hawkins merely had a nightmare about being ravished by a black intruder. Initially, Heard brimmed with curiosity about whether his choreographed encounter would yield epiphanies on either side, prompting the participants to change their minds. Before long, though, he realized none of the women had budged from their versions of the truth, he didn’t know who was right, and the session had illustrated a deeper divide, “an irreconcilable difference influenced by race and background.”  

“Black people, whether they had their facts straight or not, tended to think McGee was innocent, that he was yet another victim of a pattern of injustice and cruelty that was a shared part of their histories,” he writes. “McGee had lost his life, like so many others, so it was only natural for them to gravitate toward explanations that put him in the most favorable light. White people did something similar. Their understanding of the case was usually a mix of fact and myth, too, and though they didn’t deny that Jim Crow courts were often unjust, they wanted to believe that, in this instance, McGee had gotten a fair trial and that the system had worked.” 

Heard, who became interested in the McGee case in 2004, occasionally detours into secondary characters and subplots. On balance, these engagingly recounted digressions impede his narrative’s momentum. Still, given the richness of the historical record he unearthed, with future congresswoman Bella Abzug quarterbacking McGee’s legal team, and cameos from luminaries such as William Faulkner and Jessica Mitford, his enthusiasm is understandable.  

In the end, the reader is left to ponder the same question that propelled Heard to write his book in the first place: what really happened between McGee and Hawkins? Was a white woman raped? Was a black man wrongfully executed? To his credit, Heard resists the temptation to impose clarity. “Though I no longer put any credence in the affair story -- I couldn’t get past the huge discrepancies between the two versions -- I was still unable to accept that the prosecution presented a case that proved his guilt beyond a doubt,” he writes. “To me, there wasn’t enough evidence, then or now, to be sure either way.” 

The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South by Alex Heard
Harper
ISBN: 0061284157
349 Pages