The Eyes of Wil­lie McGee

by Alex Heard, Harper/HarperCollins, 404 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

The Eyes of Wil­lie McGee tells a sad story, a frus­trat­ing tale, and from the out­set, it is an ac­count of a hope­less episode. Alex Heard’s book de­tails a facet of an in­glo­ri­ous era in this coun­try. African Amer­i­can Wil­lie McGee was ar­rested, charged, and even­tu­ally elec­tro­cuted for the rape of a white woman in a small town in post-World War II Mis­sis­sippi. Cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing McGee’s case were sus­pect, to say the least.

Heard un­der­takes the ar­du­ous task of search­ing for the truth al­most 60 years af­ter the in­ci­dent, and in the process he not only tells the story of McGee but also the story of a re­searcher, his­to­rian, and in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist. He in­ter­views the chil­dren of McGee and those of Wil­lette Hawkins, the sur­vivor of the al­leged rape. He lo­cates judges, lawyers, and wit­nesses or their chil­dren. He finds town folks who still re­mem­ber Hawkins, McGee, and all three tri­als. He un­earths wit­nesses who were not called at the time. He brings to light trial records. He pro­ceeds down many dead-end paths to find peo­ple, records, and pho­to­graphs. Still, it isn’t clear if Wil­lie McGee was guilty of the crime for which he was sen­tenced. White peo­ple at the time were con­vinced he was guilty; black peo­ple at the time were con­vinced he was not. Sixty years later, it seems, the views of those Heard spoke with have not changed much: the white peo­ple he in­ter­viewed are pretty cer­tain that he was cul­pa­ble, while the black peo­ple are pretty cer­tain that he was not.

The tri­als were sus­pi­cious and loaded with racism and prej­u­dices. The same judge heard the trial three times. The same wit­nesses were al­lowed, and the same al­le­ga­tions were made. It was an all-white jury, and the towns­peo­ple were tense. The Na­tional Guard was called to keep or­der, and po­lice pro­tec­tion for McGee was on hand to avoid a lynch­ing. Even­tu­ally all le­gal means were ex­hausted and McGee was ex­e­cuted on May 8, 1951. (In­ci­den­tally, the de­tails of McGee’s trial and le­gal lynch­ing are very much like those of African Amer­i­can Thomas John­son of Santa Fe, who was handed a du­bi­ous con­vic­tion for the murder of An­gelina Jaramillo by Judge Miguel Otero and ex­e­cuted in 1933. Ralph Mel­nick’s 2002 book Jus­tice Be­trayed: A Dou­ble Killing in Old Santa Fe ex­plores the anti-black at­ti­tude that largely pre­vailed here at the time and found ex­pres­sion in editorials in

The Santa Fe New Mex­i­can.)

In the end, Heard could not con­clu­sively de­ter­mine McGee’s in­no­cence or guilt, but he found more than rea­son­able doubt in McGee’s case. Doubts were not valid in the South of Jim Crow — there were no eye­wit­nesses, and there was an over­all hos­tile, anti-black en­vi­ron­ment ruled by a white so­ci­ety that was de­ter­mined to pro­tect white wom­an­hood. And if this was not enough to con­vict the likes of Wil­lie McGee, those de­fend­ing him were of­ten said to be as­so­ci­ated with the Com­mu­nist Party at a time when the House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties was very ac­tive.

Wil­lie McGee isn’t a house­hold name, but what makes his story such a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count is the peo­ple in­volved — di­rectly and in­di­rectly — Bella Abzug, Wil­liam Faulkner, Josephine Baker, Su­san Brown­miller, and fu­ture Supreme Court Jus­tice Thur­good Mar­shall, to name a few. Heard was even able to make con­nec­tions in his re­search with Eu­dora Welty and Oprah Win­frey, how­ever re­mote. But this is only the story of McGee in the nar­row sense. Heard ably weaves into this core story the his­tory of the South un­der Jim Crow, dis­cussing the Scotts­boro tri­als and other high­pro­file cases, lynch­ings, and many other in­stances of post­war racial vi­o­lence. The author also dis­cusses the var­i­ous ma­jor court cases that were de­cided on the way to the civil-rights move­ment of the 1950s and 1960s, among which Brown v.

Mis­sis­sippi was likely the most rec­og­nized. Not be­ing able to de­ter­mine McGee’s in­no­cence or guilt, Heard was cer­tainly able to raise doubts about the fair­ness of his tri­als and ques­tions about his guilt. If noth­ing else, McGee was in the wrong place at the wrong time to get a fair trial.

— To­mas Jaehn

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