“Alex Heard has crafted a memorable narrative of a civil rights case that deserves a larger place in American memory.” —Jon Meacham
In this gripping saga of race and retribution, Alex Heard tells a moving and unforgettable story of the deep South that says as much about Mississippi today as it does about the mysteries of the past. In doing so, he evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, north and south in America.
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.
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.