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

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

3.1 7
by Alex Heard
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

In this gripping saga of race and retribution, Alex Heard (editorial director of Outside magazine) tells a moving and unforgettable story of the deep South that says as much about Mississippi today as it does about the mysteries of the past. In doing so, he evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, north and south in America.See more details below

Overview

In this gripping saga of race and retribution, Alex Heard (editorial director of Outside magazine) tells a moving and unforgettable story of the deep South that says as much about Mississippi today as it does about the mysteries of the past. In doing so, he evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, north and south in America.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Kazin
…[Heard] surrounds the legal narrative with a rich and knowing context of historical truths. He describes other, clearly unjust capital trials of black men in the period and several horrific lynchings. He details the friction between the Civil Rights Congress and the much larger National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose leaders were suspicious of any defense campaign in which communists had a dominant role. And he sketches the biographies of the local white attorneys who tried to save McGee…On occasion, the lengthy backstories obscure the travails of McGee himself…Still, Heard has produced a book that, in arresting prose, captures a significant slice of the past and a case whose verdict was all but preordained.
—The Washington Post
Tara McKelvey
Heard acknowledges that he did not find out "what really happened," but he succeeds impressively on another level: he places the story in the historical context of the civil rights movement. Through gritty, precise reporting, he reveals the human cost of mob violence and "legal lynchings" in Mississippi, where "roughly 500 of the 5,000 or more U.S. lynching victims between 1865 and 1965" died…Heard tells of those who fought against lynchings and of those who died in their midst. It is a wrenching story, but a rich narrative.
—The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A thorough revisiting of the 1945 Mississippi black-white rape case that ended in the electric chair. Determining that there were too many holes in the case against Willie McGee-despite three trials, appeals and public outcry-Outside editorial director Heard (Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, 1999), born in Jackson, Miss., decided to start his investigation from scratch, along the way consulting primary sources, trial transcripts, FBI documents and archived papers. McGee, a black grocery-delivery driver in Laurel, was accused of raping a white married woman and mother of three, Willette Hawkins, after breaking into her home at dawn on Nov. 2, 1945. By Mississippi law, the death penalty could be applied for rape, though only African-Americans had suffered that punishment. Heard wades through reams of obfuscation around the case-much of it concocted by desperate supporters associated with the Civil Rights Congress and McGee's lawyers, including the young Bella Abzug-alleging that McGee and Hawkins were actually having an illicit affair, that Hawkins might have been pregnant by McGee and that blackmail was involved. To reach a sense of the facts, the author tracked down several of the children of both McGee and Hawkins and exposed some convincing angles, such as that Hawkins was traumatized by the rape, and that McGee's real wife had been abandoned, while the woman presented to the public as his wife was someone he had only met in jail and corresponded with. Heard does a fine job presenting horrific documentation of the practice of lynching in the South-McGee initially confessed out of terror for his life-and of the general culture of racism perpetrated by Sen. Theodore G.Bilbo and others. Due to the suspicion of Communist intentions at the time, the widely accepted defamation of Hawkins's character and the outrageous injustice against blacks systematically practiced in the South, there is no way to discover "what really happened." However, the author undertakes painstaking detective work to engagingly explore an era of deep-seated racial hatred. Author appearances in Mississippi, including Oxford
Publishers Weekly
An iconic criminal case—a black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman in Mississippi in 1945—exposes the roiling tensions of the early civil rights era in this provocative study. McGee's prosecution garnered international protests—he was championed by the Communist Party and defended by a young lawyer named Bella Abzug (later a New York City congresswoman and cofounder of the National Women's Political Caucus), while luminaries from William Faulkner to Albert Einstein spoke out for him—but journalist Heard (Apocalypse Pretty Soon) finds the saga rife with enigmas. The case against McGee, hinging on a possibly coerced confession, was weak and the legal proceedings marred by racial bias and intimidation. (During one of his trials, his lawyers fled for their lives without delivering summations.) But Heard contends that McGee's story—that he and the victim, Willette Hawkins, were having an affair—is equally shaky. The author's extensive research delves into the documentation of the case, the public debate surrounding it, and the recollections of McGee and Hawkins's family members. Heard finds no easy answers, but his nuanced, evocative portrait of the passions enveloping McGee's case is plenty revealing. Photos. (May)
The New York Times Book Review
“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 Chicago Tribune
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.”
John Grisham
“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.”
Jon Meacham
“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.”
Walter Isaacson
“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.”
Jacob Weisberg
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.”
Douglas Brinkley
“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.”
Susan Brownmiller
“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.”
Mary Roach
“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.”

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061993565
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
06/08/2010
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
359,969
File size:
1 MB

What People are saying about this

Douglas Brinkley
“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.”
Jon Meacham
“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.”
Walter Isaacson
“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.”
Susan Brownmiller
“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.”
Jacob Weisberg
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.”
John Grisham
“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.”
Mary Roach
“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.”

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >