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The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South Hardcover – May 11, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (May)
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From Booklist

On May 8, 1951, a black man was electrocuted in Laurel, Mississippi, convicted of raping a white woman. At the time, Mississippi's death penalty for rape was applied only to black men, never to whites. McGee's conviction in 1945 raised a firestorm of protest (supporters included Bella Abzug, William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, and Norman Mailer), making McGee's case a cause célèbre. Journalist Heard, whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and the New Republic, reopens the case, reprising the court battles and the “Free Willie McGee” campaign. His research, consisting of interviews with family members and exhaustive probes into court transcripts, newspapers reports, and FBI records (to name a few sources), brings to light not just the shocking details surrounding this case but also the deep, lived inequities of the Jim Crow South. Comparable to Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic (1998). --Connie Fletcher

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061284157
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061284151
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #787,604 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Chapati VINE VOICE on May 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Here's a real-life version of the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, though it's far murkier and complicated. Willie McGee was an African-American man who, in 1945, was sentenced to death for raping a white housewife, Willette Hawkins. His trial was unfair- he was tried by an all-white jury who debated for only about two minutes before convicting him in a hostile courthouse where he couldn't even put together two words coherently, he was so terrified of being lynched by the mob outside.

Willie McGee caught the interest of many civil rights organizations in America and even more people around the world. William Faulkner spoke out about him. Norman Mailer. Letters poured in from China, Germany, the UK and countless other places, pleading his innocence. But did those supporters really have the facts straight? As Alex Heard investigates the case, he finds multiple, serious discrepancies about the "facts" presented. Did Willie and Willette have a forbidden affair? Who was Willie's wife at the time, and did she really take care of his children? Was Willie innocent? Was Willette as horrible and manipulative as some people believe?

This book is fascinating. Heard touches on race relations, the political climate, William Faulkner and so much else. He uses the trial as a central point from which to explore all sorts of historical events and personalities of the period. He touches on newspaper titans, white supremacist senators, Harry Truman, Jessica Mitford, and the way people can bend the facts so that a case can serve as a rallying cry for an organization.

But that's the sad (and fascinating) thing. What *were* the facts in this ase? Whites who remember Willette Hawkins strongly believe that she was raped.
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Format: Hardcover
I heard about this book on NPR in a piece that made something that on the surface seemed unbearably familiar - yet another injustice of the pre-Civil Rights South - sound like a genuinely original, fascinating, and weird look at a piece of history easy to ignore. Having read the book, I can say: it is.

Why weird? In this situation, neither side was honest - one of the prosecutors even admits to it. But McGee, widely considered a victim of circumstance (he may have been having an affair with the woman he was accused of raping, and the accepted theory is that her husband found out and so she had to pretend it was rape), also made up at least several key details, not least of which is that a woman was brought in to portray his wife, Rosalee, throughout years of appeals! Heard proves conclusively that Rosalee was not the mother of McGee's children and was basically playing a role under the direction of the Communist Party.

That's right, the Communist Party. I never realized what a significant role they played in the Civil Rights movement - probably because no one wanted to say anything positive about a Communist, especially in the 1950s. They don't come off particularly well; you get the sense of McGee being a pawn in a PR game fought behind the scenes, with the NAACP staying away from McGee because of the Communists. But they brought in Bella Abzug (again, I thought, what is SHE doing here?), and lots of pages are given to the efforts of outsiders like her in an insular community like Laurel, Mississippi.
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Format: Hardcover
Having grown up in the South, I thought I knew the history of race relations there fairly well and didn't expect The Eyes of Willie McGee to bring much new to the table. False assumption! The trial of Willie McGee, a black man in 1940s Mississippi accused and eventually executed for raping a white woman, became the center of an international controversy and, in the process, brought in a cast of characters you might not expect to find in a case like this one. Take, for example, the Communist Party, which makes its debut in the first ten pages of the book and plays an important role throughout, especially in shaping the stance the NAACP took towards the case. Who knew? (Thanks to Alex Heard, I do now!)

There are no easy answers in the Willie McGee case. Heard's research is thorough and nuanced, brilliantly teasing out the questionable and sometimes downright dishonest actions taken by both the prosecution and the defense. What makes this book impressive and engaging to read, however, is the way in which the trial brings together so many potent issues from the time, often in surprising ways. It's like reading an all too familiar story of injustice through fresh eyes. This book is riveting and gives you everything you could ask for in nonfiction: a fascinating and entertaining set of actors, an informative case study of the trial and the broader questions of race and justice it embodied, and a deep and often unsettling meditation on a piece of forgotten history that Heard gives a voice once again.
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