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

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Overview

A Washington Post Best Book of the Year

In 1945, a young African-American man from Laurel, Mississippi, was sentenced to death for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. The case was barely noticed until Bella Abzug, a young New York labor lawyer, was hired to oversee Willie McGee's appeal. Together with William Patterson, a dedicated black reformer, Abzug risked her life to plead the case. “Free Willie McGee” became an international rallying cry, with supporters ...

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

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Overview

A Washington Post Best Book of the Year

In 1945, a young African-American man from Laurel, Mississippi, was sentenced to death for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. The case was barely noticed until Bella Abzug, a young New York labor lawyer, was hired to oversee Willie McGee's appeal. Together with William Patterson, a dedicated black reformer, Abzug risked her life to plead the case. “Free Willie McGee” became an international rallying cry, with supporters flooding President Truman's White House and the U.S. Supreme Court with clemency pleas and famous Americans—including William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, and Norman Mailer—speaking out on McGee's behalf. By 1951, millions worldwide were convinced of McGee's innocence—even though there were serious questions about his claim that the truth involved a secret love affair.

In this unforgettable story of justice in the Deep South, Mississippi native Alex Heard reexamines the lasting mysteries surrounding McGee's haunting case.

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Editorial Reviews

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.”
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.”
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)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061284168
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/10/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 584,029
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Table of Contents

1 The Hot Seat 1

2 A Man Wasn't Born to Live Forever 27

3 Take Your Choice 55

4 Her Jitterbug 81

5 God Don't Like Ugly 105

6 The Malady of Meddler's Itch 128

7 The Odds Against Smiling Johnny 151

8 A Rumpus of Reds 180

9 Country Girl 209

10 Communists Coming Here 233

11 A Long, Low Song 261

12 Bare-Legged Women 285

13 Sorrow Night 309

Epilogue: Whiskey in a Paper Sack 337

Acknowledgments 351

Bibliography 355

Notes 367

Index 397

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 4, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    this is a deep look back at a nasty period in our history.

    In 1945 black man Willie McGee is sentenced to death for raping Willette Hawkins a white woman in Mississippi. Six years later even with noted celebrities like Faulkner and Einstein and the Communist Party speaking in defense of "Free Willie McGee", the state executed him. Alex Heard provides a deep look at the case and the Jim Crow environment that made the outcome inevitable. First Mr. Heard makes a case that both sides in the debate played at best loose with the truth and most likely fabricated it. The prosecution appears to have forced a confession, used the racist card to sell their side and forced the defense attorneys to flee to avoid a lynching. On the other hand Mr. Heard also believes that McGee's contention of an affair is doubtful and a woman was hired probably by the Communist Party to act as his wife. Using FBI records, newspapers and interviews of family members, Mr. Heard paints a powerful look at Jim Crow as regardless of the evidence, Willie McGee would have been executed. Finally with photos including from the picnic atmosphere of the execution and references To Kill a Mockingbird, this is a deep look back at a nasty period in our history.

    Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2012

    One sided

    I was hoping to hear more than a one sided story It could have been better.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted January 16, 2011

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    Posted August 20, 2010

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    Posted December 2, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2011

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