By Michael Kazin
Sunday, July 18, 2010; B07
A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South
By Alex Heard
404 pp. $26.99
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."
But Alex Heard, a veteran journalist who grew up in Mississippi, uncovers a story that is a good deal more intriguing, if less dramatic, than Harper Lee's iconic Southern novel. The McGee case was fought out on a global terrain. That tearful young lawyer's name was Bella Abzug. Years before she became a politician famous for big hats and robust feminism, Abzug worked for the Civil Rights Congress, a small but aggressive group with close ties to the Communist Party. The CRC, with aid from the Soviet bloc, whipped up an international outcry against McGee's execution. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Dmitri Shostakovich dispatched cables of outrage, and a band of protesters chained themselves to one of the columns at the Lincoln Memorial.
At the same time, the CRC connection enabled the authorities to charge that McGee's defense was a prime example of subversive meddling by "the Reds." Mississippi's governor at the time was Fielding Wright, a severe former judge who, in 1948, ran for vice-president on the States' Rights ticket with Strom Thurmond. There was as much chance that Wright would commute the death sentence of a convicted black rapist as there was that Abzug would express a fondness for the quaint racial mores of the Old South.
At ideological loggerheads, few of the key actors cared to acknowledge that the facts of the case were actually quite murky. Heard sifts carefully through dozens of contradictory accounts -- including long interviews with the children of both the defendant and his accuser -- and emerges with a sad recognition that, under the Jim Crow order, blind justice was, in essence, impossible. Every black Mississippian believed McGee and Hawkins had a consensual affair that somehow went bad; hardly anyone on the other side of the color line believed a respectable white mother could stoop so low. "That's just what the Russians were using to stir up trouble in our country," one white housewife told a local paper.
With no physical proof that a rape had occurred or any eyewitnesses other than Hawkins herself, McGee would likely have been acquitted by a fair-minded jury. But he had initially confessed to the crime -- after several police beatings. Hawkins stood firm by her story, even suing the Communist Daily Worker for libel. In the end, a divided U.S. Supreme Court refused to take the case.
While Heard is unable to decide who was the honest party, he 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, including a former boxer who had big political ambitions before deciding "to give the black man in Mississippi the full advantage of his rights under the law."
On occasion, the lengthy backstories obscure the travails of McGee himself, a frightened man who appeared to go mad for a spell when he thought his cause was hopeless. 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.
There were signs in the late 1940s and early '50s that the long night of official racism was beginning to end. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrated the major leagues, Harry Truman integrated the armed forces, and black men and women with stable jobs joined civil rights groups in unprecedented numbers. None of this was enough to help Willie McGee. But, in his final letter, he asked his wife to "tell the people to Keep on fighting." Four years later and two hundred miles to the east, by refusing to ride buses in Montgomery, Ala., thousands of black people did just that.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is co-editor of Dissent and the author, most recently, of "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan."