The Eyes of Willie McGee
A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South
By Alex Heard
Harper, Hardcover, 9780061284151, 416pp.
Publication Date: May 1, 2010
List Price: $26.99*
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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.
“In this riveting personal journey, Alex Heard explores the political and social forces at play and then reveals the fascinating human drama underneath it all. It’s like a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird, but with even more subtlety and complexity.”
-Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein
“A stout argument can now be made that the execution of Willie McGee in 1951 launched the civil rights movement. A stunning narrative achievement based on a bevy of new documentary evidence. Essential reading for all Americans.”
-Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge
“Heard succeeds impressively. . . . Through gritty, precise reporting, he reveals the human cost of mob violence and ‘legal lynchings’ in Mississippi. . . . Heard tells of those who fought against lynchings and of those who died in their midst. . . . A rich narrative.”
-The New York Times Book Review
“Alex Heard has peeled back the tarp on the American South ten long years before Rosa Parks boarded the bus. Willie McGee is the epicenter of an addictive mystery that draws you in even as it repels you. This is an extraordinary book.”
-Mary Roach, author of Stiff
“The Eyes of Willie McGee should be must reading for serious students of 20th century U.S. history. . . . A vivid, and essential, story of a rape trial and conviction, lynch mobs and complex personal relationships.”
-The Chicago Tribune
“The Eyes of Willie McGee re-creates a drama of race, class, crime, and politics that helped set the stage for both the McCarthy Era and the civil rights revolution. Heard’s story reads like “Radical Chic” in 1940s Mississippi. It’s a gripping, disturbing treat.”
-Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy
“In this gripping story of a world at once remote yet painfully familiar, Alex Heard has crafted a memorable narrative of a civil rights case that deserves a larger place in American memory.”
-Jon Meacham, author of American Lion
“The story of Willie McGee was one of the most haunting cases to come out of the forcibly segregated, violence-ridden South in its time. Alex Heard uses McGee’s story to shed light on an America we’d like to forget—a time when mob rule and lynching prevailed. A magisterial book.”
-Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will
“The case of Willie McGee is an enduring mystery, but there’s no doubt he was the victim of a primitive and unfair judicial system. Alex Heard’s excellent account of his life and death is tragic, sad, and very compelling.”
-John Grisham, author of The Innocent Man