Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"The Eyes of Willie McGee" by Alex Heard

Willie McGee was an African-American man accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi in 1945. He never had a chance. That it took 6 years, and as many trials, for the state to finally execute him, during the time of Jim Crow laws, is almost an exoneration of the final injustice. But kill him they did, in Mississippi's famous "rolling" electric chair, which was brought from one county to another as the need arose.

In the racially charged atmosphere of post-war Mississippi, the color lines were clearly drawn, especially where co-mingling of white women and black men were concerned. That's the real mystery in this book. Was Willie McGee, as has been said, having an affair with the woman, Willette Hawkins? And when he decided to marry her maid and move to Texas, did she just cry "rape" in anger?

The first trial took a day and the jury deliberated just 3 and a half minutes to find him guilty. He was sentenced to die within 60 days of the crime! The second trial took a bit longer but yielded the same results. At this point the NAACP got involved along with the Civil Rights Congress, which was a Communist organization. Willie McGee was now caught in a crossfire of politics, racism and opportunism.

By the time the third and fourth trials were underway there were more lawyers than you can imagine, including a young Bela Abzug from New York. Eleanor Roosevelt did not come to Mr. McGees aid, as this conflicted with her geo-political activities, which would have been at odds with the Communist ties of the defense.

The book is a complex work in which the reader is forced to make some hard decisions concerning Mr. McGee's guilt or innocence. My own opinion is that Mrs. Hawkins was having an affair with Willie McGee and it went astray. She then turned the table on Mr. McGee in an effort to erase the entire affair.

A surperb piece of investigative journalism, this book will leave you thinking about what was right, or wrong, with the system in place at that time.

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