The Eyes of Willie McGee
by Alex Heard, Harper/HarperCollins, 404 pages
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