Sunday, July 18, 2010

Alex Heard's "The Eyes of Willie McGee," reviewed by Michael Kazin

by Michael Kazin

Washington Post
July 18, 2010

The bare facts about the case of Willie McGee seem to fit the dreadful image of a legal lynching in the Deep South back when white supremacy ruled. In 1945, McGee, a handsome black truck-driver, was jailed for allegedly raping a white housewife named Willette Hawkins in Laurel, Miss. -- while her husband slept in a nearby room and a small child slept beside her. Despite the improbable circumstances, McGee was convicted by an all-white jury and, after two appeals, was electrocuted in 1951.

On the night of the execution, a cheerful, all-white crowd gathered by the courthouse, and two local radio stations broadcast the event live. When she heard of her client's fate, one of McGee's defense counsels "cried at the notion of the human degradation that could kill a man because of his color, because that's what it was." The tale may remind one, as a blurb on the dust-jacket says, of "a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird."