The Eyes of Willie Mcgee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South
It’s impossible to read this book without validating the rage and bitterness that still afflict many African Americans who rail against white racism in the United States. After all, what if the oppressive culture of the Old South were to re-grow out of its twisted, ugly trunk?
The place was Mississippi, and the year was 1945. A black man was accused of raping a white woman. He snuck into her house in the early morning darkness, threatened her and the baby nestled next to her, and forced her to do what he wanted. He disappeared afterwards and she ran out into the yard, screaming and naked. Or did she? Or did he? Was he the perpetrator or the victim? Or both? And what was she?
The bare fact is that Willie McGee was electrocuted and Willette Hawkins was relentlessly slandered because of this internationally notorious alleged incident. Alex Heard (APOCALYPSE PRETTY SOON) has investigated this event thoroughly, from the first allegations through the long court battles that went all the way to the Supreme Court, to the conclusion: McGee’s date with Mississippi’s “traveling electric chair.”
It was a time when the South was just emerging from a long sleep, some would say a coma, of racial divisions that went blood and bone deep. A Mississippi governor had encouraged Klan-like vigilantes to act by night to prevent blacks from venturing to the polling places. Blacks could be tortured and killed for trying to vote, whistling, or refusing to move out of the way fast enough. Those accused of even minor crimes were frequently dragged from the supposed safety of jail and executed in bloodthirsty community actions known by the oxymoron “legal lynching.” Young black men returning from defending their country overseas were targeted for beatings and murder, as if to say, “Don’t get the idea that you have any rights here at home.”
But there were small signs of change. The McGee trial heralded a new era in which “commies” and “yankee agitators” presumed to invade the South and threaten its long-held balance of racial coexistence characterized by one race ruling the other by fear, the other supporting its oppressor by its labor and exhausted acquiescence. Heard learned that to tell the truth about McGee and Hawkins, he would have to shovel through impacted layers of mythology, defensiveness, and distorted recollection. It was a tenet of Southern racism that no respectable white woman would willingly have sex with a black man. When the black community rallied behind McGee, privately spreading the rumor that he and Hawkins had been having an affair for a year or more before the alleged attack, it could mean only one thing: Hawkins was not a respectable white woman. This disgrace heaped upon dishonor haunted her family into the next generation.
As the colored community and the outside “agitators” demonstrated in defense of McGee (seduced by a wily white harlot, not deserving the death penalty), the local white community closed ranks, pushing to have him put down like the animal they believed him to be. The fact that the capital punishment of rape seemed to exist in Mississippi as a termination for black men only was the magnet that drew in the liberals to defend McGee and inevitably denigrate Hawkins. Ironically, Hawkins ultimately gained some satisfaction through the American legal system when she successfully sued the Daily Worker newspaper for libeling her with its claims that she had carried on an affair with McGee. The same system undoubtedly failed McGee, refusing to address the issues that the death penalty was unfairly applied, that blacks were not represented on juries, that in Mississippi, justice was not being evenly delivered.
The case became the basis for Harper Lee’s classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Heard’s book is full of famous names --- Faulkner, Azbug, Einstein, Robeson, Mailer --- people who campaigned to save Willie McGee in America and around the world. His close contacts with the families of McGee and Hawkins, and his on-the-ground work to uncover the facts, are fascinating though frustrating, since much of the evidence is subject to memories from 60 years back. But to me, the most salient document in the case is McGee’s last letter, written to his wife, because its truth is self-evident: Tell the people the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro down....
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 21, 2011