By Alex Heard
Seven years ago this month, I was shopping at a used bookstore in Chicago when I found a copy of Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown, his 2002 history of lynching in the United States. Flipping through it, I came across a brief recap of a court case I’d first heard about in 1979, when I was a student at Vanderbilt: the trial and execution of Willie McGee, a 35-year-old African-American man from Laurel, Mississippi, who was electrocuted in 1951 for the rape of a white housewife named Willette Hawkins.
Alleged rape, that is.
As Dray explained, McGee’s saga, which started with his arrest and first trial in 1945, was a story of rough southern justice aimed at a semi-literate laborer who many people believed had been railroaded. Dray presented it as a classic Jim Crow outrage. In his telling, an innocent man was framed by a white jezebel who had trapped him into a love affair and then cried rape when they were caught. Mississippi’s racist courts, well aware that McGee was innocent, buried the truth and sent him to his death. It was a kangaroo-court plotline that sounded like the rape trial in To Kill a Mockingbird – without any cute kids in overalls to soften the depressing unfairness.
Many elements in Dray’s summary turned out to be accurate, but as I learned during five years of researching my own book, The Eyes of Willie McGee, the story was not so easily summed up. Through a long, puzzling process of historical filtering, it had been simplified – and amplified – to match what people on both sides of this divisive controversy wanted to believe. Somewhere along the way, it stopped being about facts at all and became a malleable myth with lessons that varied tremendously, depending on the perspective of the teller.
Oddly, the only version that survived in most history books was the one pushed by the defense – that is, the one pushed by the Communist Party USA, which in those days sponsored an effective legal arm called the Civil Rights Congress (CRC). In the years after World War II, when voting rights and desegregation were still decades away, much of the action in the civil rights movement involved the defense of people like McGee, who appeared to be the victims of what were called “legal lynchings” – one-sided trials of black defendants in the South that almost always led to guilty verdicts.
The CRC competed with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for control of cases like this, and the McGee defense became the CRC’s best-known effort. Before it ended, an impressive array of prominent Americans had directly aided McGee or spoken up in support of clemency, including Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, Jessica Mitford, Josephine Baker, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer and Bella Abzug. Abzug, then a young labor lawyer just a few years out of Columbia, served as McGee’s lead defense attorney during several years of state and federal appeals that began in 1948, after he was found guilty in the last of three circuit-court trials. (The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the first two guilty verdicts because of procedural matters involving venue and race-based jury exclusion.)
Judging by Dray’s bibliography, it appeared nobody had done a book on the McGee case, only articles or portions of books. As it happened, I owned an artifact that I was fairly sure no other writer knew about: a 1951 tape recording of a live radio broadcast that went out from the scene on the night of McGee’s execution, which took place in Laurel. The tape was captured off a home radio by the late Jim Leeson, my friend and journalism adviser at Vanderbilt, when he was a 20-year-old college student living in the nearby city of Hattiesburg.
In those days, Mississippi used a “portable” electric chair, a clunky, primitive-looking device that was set up in the same courtroom where the condemned man had been convicted. McGee was put to death just after midnight on May 8, 1951, in a packed second-story chamber full of law-enforcement officials, all-white spectators, male relatives of Mrs. Hawkins and reporters. The broadcast lasted about 30 minutes, and it’s chilling. You hear a pair of old-school radio newsmen describing the scene outside the courthouse, where a large crowd of white onlookers had gathered to celebrate McGee’s death. The announcers stood near a truck housing a generator that would send current through lines snaking up to the second floor.
“Those of you who are listening, I [can] hear the motor of the truck,” one reporter said as the generator rumbled to life. “Let’s put our microphone [closer] just a minute and see if you can pick that up.”
What I had wasn’t much to go on, but it was a start. And so I had that fateful thought every writer knows too well: “Hmmm.”
I know a lot more about Willie McGee now. Over the next few years, my two scraps of information expanded to fill a five-drawer filing cabinet, the result of multiple reporting trips to Mississippi and to archives in several states, dozens of interviews, a host of Freedom of Information Act requests, and thousands of emails. I worked from the ground up, trying to build a new stockpile of facts using primary sources whenever I could find them, on everything from the spelling of Mrs. Hawkins’s often-garbled first name, to the memos written by U.S. Supreme Court clerks during McGee’s various appeals, to the moving last words he wrote on the day he died. Though almost no one connected with the case was still alive, I tried to find relatives of every major figure who played a part in the story, a process that stretched out over several years.
Nothing unusual there: Anybody who writes about an historical event piles up a lot of information. But researching the McGee case was unique in some ways, and the process taught me a few new lessons about how elusive the truth can be – and how easy it is to look at ugly episodes from the past with modern-day biases that distort what we think we’re seeing. The first and biggest surprise was how untrustworthy much of the source material turned out to be – especially secondary sources, like Dray’s book, that summarized the case based on other books and old newspaper stories. This problem became apparent soon after I got to work.
The case proved fascinating largely because of McGee’s counterclaim. He said he had sex with Mrs. Hawkins.
Initially, I assumed that my work would simply mean fleshing out what seemed to be the verdict of history: that McGee was innocent and that the story had a clear villain in Willette Hawkins, who started the affair and lied about it to save her neck. McGee swore to the affair during the appeals – as did his wife, Rosalee McGee. His various trial lawyers, Mississippians all, never brought it up in circuit court, believing he’d get lynched if they did.
Rosalee had plenty to say about it. A tireless spokeswoman, she toured the country giving speeches on McGee’s behalf in 1950 and 1951, telling audiences that Mrs. Hawkins had “raped my husband.” In an affidavit from 1950, Rosalee swore that Mrs. Hawkins confronted her and McGee on the streets of Laurel one night in 1943. They were walking home from a movie when Willette came out of an alley and told Willie to get in her car. Rosalee, who was in the dark about the affair until then, demanded to know what was going on. Mrs. Hawkins sneered and said to McGee, “Don’t fool with no Negro whores.”
The Daily Worker – the Communist party’s widely circulated newspaper – covered the McGee case from start to finish, and it led the way in establishing Mrs. Hawkins as the story’s she-devil. In 1951, a day after McGee’s execution, The Worker published a front-page editorial declaring that McGee “was murdered because the white woman who had forced an illicit affair upon him for more than four years suddenly shouted ‘rape’ after the whole town discovered the story.”
That line persisted from then on. In A Fine Old Conflict, Jessica Mitford’s 1977 book about her involvement in this and other cases, she wrote McGee was killed “despite persuasive evidence that his accuser had long been his mistress.” A web biography of Bella Abzug says McGee was “ludicrously charged with rape by a white, ‘married’ Southern slut who had been intercoursing him for years. When married Willie finally refused to continue the regularly scheduled performance, she falsely called ‘rape!’” McGee was even listed as officially exonerated in a scholarly book, In Spite of Innocence, a 1990 compilation of wrongful executions whose authors assumed that Mrs. Hawkins’ guilt had been established beyond a doubt.
Unfortunately, these confident assertions are built on a shaky foundation of rumor, mudslinging and outright lies. In their rush to demonize Mrs. Hawkins, writers missed a few facts that complicate the picture. To begin with, as I learned over the course of several years – building on information I got from relatives of McGee – Rosalee was never married to Willie and she never lived in Laurel. Though she pretended to be his wife and the mother of the four children he’d fathered, in 1943 Rosalee was married to another man and living in a different part of Mississippi, 150 miles away.
Her real name was Rosetta Saffold. She didn’t meet McGee for the first time until after his arrest, when she was visiting a cousin in the same jail and started talking to McGee through the bars. She lied in her affidavit because she cared for McGee and wanted to help save his life. Officials at the Civil Rights Congress encouraged this ruse because they believed McGee needed image polishing to increase his chances during the appeals. To that end, the CRC said he was a World War II veteran and a devoted family man. In fact, he didn’t serve in the military and he abandoned his wife and children in 1942. The children’s real mother was a woman named Eliza Jane Payton McGee, who divorced McGee in 1946. I was told about Eliza Jane by Bridgette McGee-Robinson, McGee’s granddaughter, and Della McGee, his only living child, during one of my earliest interviews. I found the divorce papers myself in Mississippi.
As for Mrs. Hawkins, the standard depictions of her seem very unlikely. Physically, she didn’t sound like the type of woman who would stalk the streets of Laurel at night looking for clandestine sex. As the trial testimony made clear, she was thin and in poor health, standing 5 feet 8 and weighing only 92 pounds. If she did hit the streets searching for McGee, she wouldn’t have been in a car, because she didn’t know how to drive. (I heard this from her relatives, but also from other sources, including an elderly African-American woman who had no reason to take her side.) And if she did have a long-running affair with McGee, there was a big chronological hole in the relationship during World War II, when Willie and Rosalee both said the affair was going full tilt in Laurel. In 1942, Mrs. Hawkins’ husband, Troy, moved the family to Evansville, Indiana, where he had a wartime job at a defense plant. The Hawkinses didn’t return to Laurel until late 1944.
Mrs. Hawkins – who had three daughters who are all still alive – died in a 1967 car accident that also claimed the life of Troy, who was driving. Nobody who’s written about the case ever spoke to her or her daughters to check basic facts. If they had, they might have heard about something important left out of every book and article: In 1951, Mrs. Hawkins sued The Daily Worker for libel, charging that it had falsely and maliciously written about the affair as if it were fact. The Daily Worker’s parent company and the Communist Party spent years searching for additional evidence that the affair happened, even sending a private detective to Mississippi to sleuth around. They couldn’t find anything, so they settled out of court in 1955, paying Mrs. Hawkins $5,000 and printing two retractions.
As I argue in my book, none of this proves McGee was guilty. It only proves that his alibi had glaring problems and points toward what I think is a fair conclusion: Mrs. Hawkins should be allowed to rest in peace, because the records in this case are too messy and ambiguous for any single conclusion to hold up. Regarding McGee, I leave it up to readers to decide whether they think he committed the rape. But even if he did, the fact that he was executed was, in my opinion, unjust. Mrs. Hawkins testified three times that she was raped in her bed just before daybreak by a black intruder, but as she frankly acknowledged in each trial, it was too dark for her to see the man’s face. She knew her attacker was black based solely on the texture of his hair. McGee was convicted by biased all-white juries, who heard details of a confession that was probably beaten out of him, along with circumstantial evidence that placed him in the vicinity at the time of the rape. There was no conclusive physical evidence.
Once McGee was found guilty of raping a white woman, he had virtually no chance of escaping the death penalty in Mississippi’s courts, and the federal appeals process wasn’t much help. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case four different times, ignoring claims that the prosecution had tampered with the grand jury before McGee’s third trial to help ensure his conviction. In those days, Mississippi’s death penalty for rape was applied only to black males. I discovered a forgotten 1946 case from Laurel in which a white male, convicted of raping a 5-year-old black girl, got a prison term instead of death. But the Supreme Court showed no interest in taking on Mississippi’s obvious race-based sentencing inequities. Whether McGee did it or not, he was still railroaded.
so, do I get special smart-guy points because I uncovered new layers of complexity in the McGee case? No. If I have a special skill at all, it’s this: I’m so panic prone that I overkill the research – going to every library and knocking on every door – to increase the odds that I’ll know what I’m talking about.
Jim Leeson, who was still alive when I was working on the book, also helped with the various commandments he laid on me regarding fairness. Leeson had been an AP man and civil-rights reporter in the ’50s and ’60s, and his fundamental edict about objectivity always stayed in my mind: Don’t think you know the story before you report it. I had edged in that direction, briefly assuming that McGee’s innocence was an open-and-shut thing, but the flaws with the conventional wisdom were so obvious I couldn’t miss them. In the end, all I really did was restore old complexities that had been there to begin with. People who wrote about the case at the time – including the late African-American journalist Carl Rowan, who devoted a chapter to McGee in his 1952 book South of Freedom – understood that it was too murky to be easily explained.
What Rowan grasped – and what many subsequent writers forgot – is that in a knockdown, drag-out fight like this, both sides are likely to generate a mixture of truth and lies in an effort to win. The prosecution certainly lied when it needed to: I found solid evidence that the judge and DA at the third trial conspired to tamper with the grand jury.
But the Communists played rough, too, managing the trial story from the outset much like a media-savvy defense attorney would do today. During my research, though, I was surprised to learn that it took a while before they went public with the affair story. Abzug and the CRC didn’t air it until the spring of 1951, only a few months before McGee’s execution, when they threw it out as a Hail Mary. Up until then, the main line of attack was that Mrs. Hawkins’s account of the rape simply sounded hard to believe, and so it was assumed she was lying. In support of this, the CRC pointed to obvious questions that defied logical answers. Where was her husband when this happened? Why didn’t she scream?
Actually, both questions had been answered. In all three trials, Willette and Troy testified they were in different parts of the house when the rape occurred. They said they’d been up taking care of their 20-month-old daughter, who was ill. Around 4 a.m., Willette told Troy to go to another room and get some sleep. She stayed in a bedroom at the front of the house while he went to the back, sleeping in a room that put him two rooms, three walls and 25 feet away. Assuming that Willette and Troy weren’t lying – the defense contended they were – their relative positions would explain why Troy didn’t hear anything. In her testimony, Willette said she did briefly cry out, but that the attacker threatened to kill her child if she didn’t shut up.
Whether you buy this story or not – it’s not ridiculous on its face – the CRC tried to discredit it by rewriting what had been said in court. In early 1946, not long after the first trial, a CRC press release labeled “Two Minute Justice” served up what would become the standard critique of Mrs. Hawkins’ testimony for the next five years.
“Thirteen witnesses, including [McGee]’s alleged victim, appeared against him,” it said. “Their story was that he had entered the woman’s home at night, assaulted her while at her side in the bed was her small child, and in the next room her husband slept. It was not shown why any of the thirteen witnesses made no attempt to stop the assault. It was not shown either why the woman herself did not cry out, or her child, and thus awaken her nearby husband.”
The language of this release lived on, and The Daily Worker forged it into a boilerplate dismissal of Mrs. Hawkins’ story. The Daily Worker pivoted in 1951, when the affair claim became public knowledge, saying from then on that “everybody in town” knew about Willie and Willette’s relationship. What happened in the decades after the case ended was a steady process of mutation and distortion produced by writers who probably had good motives for what they did: They were instinctively taking the side of a man who’d been chewed up by Jim Crow courts.
Either that, or they were just being lazy. For young writers out there, a word of advice: Neither approach is recommended.