The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
11. A LONG, LOW SONG
In Laurel on July 26, law enforcement officials were able to get McGee safely out of Jones County and back to Hinds—barely. On the 27th, he wrote Patterson from the Hinds County jail, describing his latest trip to the edge.
“They are all hot, mad feelings are running high here,” he said. “I was nearly mobbed Wed. when they brought me from Jones Co. jail. Was knocked down. There was a crowd there. We have to run out the jail to the patrol car. They like to get me, just lucky that I jumped in the floor of the back of the car. Was hit several times before the patrol could pull off. I can’t explain to you on paper but I was just lucky that through God I am alive today. I was in a serious place Wed. It all happen so suddenly.”
McGee wasn’t exaggerating. The Laurel Leader-Call ran a front-page story, frankly reporting that he was nearly seized and lynched. “His removal from the jail here was the first time that he has actually faced death from mob violence,” the story said.
The court order sparing McGee arrived in Laurel at 11:32 a.m., and word got around fast. “Small groups began to assemble within the courthouse vicinity and before 1:00 o’clock more than a hundred men had reach[ed] the area,” the Leader-Call said. “They were bitter and there was much talk against the Civil Rights Congress and the Communist Party…. ‘Go to Washington,’ one man said, ‘and tell them you are a member of the Communist Party and they’ll give you the dome to the Capitol.’”
More ominously, two women moved through the crowd in mid-afternoon, expressing “bitterness and anger” that justice wasn’t being served.
The key moment came at 3:45, when Deputy Sheriff Preston Royals went into the jail by himself to fetch McGee. From there, Royals took him to the courthouse by way of the catwalk that connected the two structures on their second floors. With most of the crowd unaware of their position, they went down the courthouse stairs, out the west entrance, and into a state automobile parked on Fifth Avenue. That side of the courthouse wasn’t completely empty, though, and McGee was hit by a man’s fist as he ran to the car.
“If the blow had knocked the negro to the sidewalk it appears almost certain that he would have died by lynching,” the report said.
With the execution stalled, Laurel’s leaders channeled the town’s anger into a mass meeting held that night, a response to the alien forces that were causing the delays. Some 300 people gathered inside the courthouse to hear speech after speech by businessmen and city officials who wanted to follow the recent example of Birmingham, Alabama, which had passed an ordinance that mandated fines and jail time for anybody who was a known Communist.
“I am not in a speaking mood tonight, I feel so strongly about this situation,” said Mayor Carroll Gartin. “As Mayor, I favor an ordinance to keep communists out of Laurel and the state of Mississippi.”
“The situation is more serious than you think,” said County Prosecutor E. K. Collins. “This is more than just the trial of Willie McGee.” He said the stay happened because of foreign pressure on the State Department, and he urged people to write their congressmen and senators.
In Laurel on August 8, speaking to 2,000 people at the civic auditorium, Governor Wright added to the local sense of outrage, excoriating President Truman, hinting that he might run as a States’ Rights candidate for president, and calling the CRC delegation “the nastiest group you ever saw.”
Wright liked to believe McGee’s supporters were, to a person, wily Communists with cynical agendas, but it wasn’t true. The best evidence for this is the flood of letters, telegrams, and postcards sent to him in the days and weeks before the clemency hearing. They were mailed from all over the United States and several foreign countries, sometimes written in inscrutable languages. One was addressed to “Gowerner Friedling Wright, Jack-On Stan Missisipi U.S.A.”
Harvey McGehee got another thousand or so cards and letters himself. Publicly, both men refused to acknowledge that this correspondence had any significance. Nonetheless, Wright—or somebody in his office—took the trouble to save much of what came in. Stored at the state archives in Jackson, the letters fill twenty boxes. If you take a look through any random stack, it’s evident that the CRC had succeeded in making McGee’s case resonate with a broader audience than Communists and fellow travelers.
Some of the letters were indeed insults from the left. Carl and Anne Braden, Louisville, Kentucky-based leftists who would figure prominently in the McGee case later, opened with this: “Sometimes you people in Mississippi act like you don’t have good sense. You are always picking on some poor person who can’t defend himself. You make the rest of the world think that all Southerners are a bunch of Hitlers.”
But most were appeals from people who wanted Wright to give serious thought to what was about to happen. A disproportionate number came from the New York area, often inspired by the Compass stories.
“I have been reading a series of articles on Willie McGee’s case, and my blood was deeply chilled, to see how justice was served to him,” wrote a Manhattanite named Edgar A. Walker. “…The case has absolutely no foundation, nor substantial evidence to prove that McGee raped Mrs. Hawkins…. How could a jury accept such an incredible story?”
Addressing his remarks to “Governor Fielding Elliot,” Lewis Fulton, another New Yorker, said, “I don’t believe in ‘Northerners’ meddling in the affairs of ‘Southerners.’…But in the situation confronting the world today, no person with any feeling towards the human race can not but feel that a most terrible injustice has been framed up on Willie McGee…. Justice must be done! GRANT A STAY OF EXECUTION!”
Some Southerners spoke up too. Emily Miller Danton, a Mississippi native who was the director of the Birmingham Public Library and whose father, Thomas Marshall Miller, had served as Mississippi’s attorney general in the late 1800s, wrote, “From what I can learn of the Willie McGee case, this man has been convicted and sentenced on slight evidence, and a confession secured by torture. I beg that you will stay the execution of that sentence until you personally are convinced, not only that this man is guilty of the crime charged, but that he has had a fair trial, and has not been convicted because he is a Negro.”
A. D. Beittel, president of Alabama’s Talladega College, an African-American institution founded after the Civil War, said he’d been in Europe in 1931 and saw how the Scottsboro case was used to “defame the United States by people who were not cordial to our country.” The same thing would happen with the McGee case, he warned, this time in Korea and all over Asia. “Since nothing will be gained by the execution…and something may be gained by commuting the sentence,” he wrote, “I respectfully request you to extend mercy to the prisoner and see that he is not put to death on this doubtful charge.”
With the CRC delegates gone, Jackson and Laurel slowly quieted down as combatants on both sides applied bandages, declared victory or vowed revenge, and looked ahead to the next round, which would happen at the U.S. Supreme Court. In Washington, Associate Justice Harold Burton got his own bag of letters about the stay, mostly notes of gratitude from McGee supporters. Many seemed to think his decision indicated a personal preference that, this time, the Court do something to give McGee his freedom.
“Being a white woman, and knowing the terrible prejudices against the negroes in the south, I was heart-broken when I thought that a man must go to his death because of the color of his skin,” wrote a Bronx woman named Mrs. Ray Dee. “Not being able to do much in his behalf, I was happy to hear that a man of office had at last had the courage to speak out….
“Thank you again for the great democratic action you have taken, and may God bless you.”
Burton heard from detractors too, who crudely attacked his judgment and patriotism. “Let me state this question, Sir,” wrote A. W. Hendrix, a Mississippi native living in New Orleans. “If your wife, or mother, or daughter had been raped by a nigger—who knew better—how sir, would you feel? I have no hesitation in saying you have committed a travesty of justice in your arbitrary action, taken in the case of Willie Magee—an honestly and legally convicted rapist of one of our women.”
“Hurrah for you and Robeson,” said a curt telegram sent by a Texas man named Gordon Allen. “You are without a doubt the number one and two red in the country.”
Congressman William Colmer of Mississippi, whose district contained Jones County, denounced the CRC in the Congressional Record, along with the “‘do-gooders,’ fellow travelers, and left-wing press” who were devoted to “fomenting discord and disunity between the Negroes and the white people of the South.”
In the North, the words were flying just as furiously that summer, in part because there had been a victory in another much watched legal-lynching fight: the case of the Martinsville Seven. In that one, which NAACP lawyers were defending, seven young black men in the town of Martinsville, Virginia, had been convicted of the January 8, 1949, gang rape of a thirty-two-year-old white woman named Ruby Floyd. All were sentenced to death, and, as in the McGee case, they’d been kept alive only through state and federal appeals. On July 26—the same day Burton issued his McGee stay—there was an encouraging Martinsville development when the NAACP persuaded a city judge in Richmond, Virginia, to stay the executions while he examined a petition they’d submitted for a writ of habeas corpus.
These two temporary wins, happening so close together, inspired the Daily Worker and the New York Compass to proclaim that final victory was in sight. “They couldn’t get away with their ‘legal’ murder of Willie McGee and the framed seven Negroes of Martinsville, Virginia,” a Daily Worker editorial said. “No. The world of the KKK lynchers and their rotten judges and governors is not exactly what it used to be when the murder of a n—r, either with or without benefit of a ‘jury trial’ was just routine.”
To the Worker, both cases had taken on transcendent significance. They were of a piece with a revolutionary movement against white domination and colonialism that was beginning to sweep the world. “All Asia is aflame as the colored peoples in Malaya, Indo-China, the Philippines, [and] Indonesia act to throw off the ‘white supremacy’ lynch terror. Africa seethes like a volcano as the black man’s anger and revolt mutters like coming lightning and thunder.”
In the Compass, Ted Thackrey kept his comments closer to home, but he was jubilant too. “It is a late hour and the victory by no means complete—but United States Supreme Court Justice Harold Burton advanced the cause of democracy around the world when he granted a stay of execution to Willie McGee, Negro,” he wrote. “Justice Burton’s action assures a Supreme Court review this fall of McGee’s arrest and conviction….
“His action will have the effect of erasing some of the grave damage already done in the McGee case to our pretensions of a democratic system in which all men are equal before the law….”
It would indeed, assuming the Supreme Court decided to hear the case—a big assumption, since the justices had twice declined to do so. In the interim, as the Worker and Compass both appeared to forget, the Court’s makeup had barely changed.
In Mississippi, it was a period of paybacks. One thing the FBI missed during its July surveillance was that a black maid at the Heidelberg, a woman named Raberthe Hanks, had put herself at personal risk to protect Aubrey Grossman from the beating he received—and then lost her job as a result. Nobody knew about this at the time, including Grossman, but in early 1952 he got a letter from Hanks, who described what had happened.
“I am a poor Negro woman who was working at the hotel where you was beat up in the year 1950,” she wrote. “I was fired because I would not turn over to the manager of the hotel…the key [to give] the leader of the gang that beat you. He has not been fired. But I can’t get a job anywhere in Mississippi.” Hanks said she’d moved to the Delta looking for work—no luck—and had come back to Jackson, where she tracked down Rosalee McGee to tell her story. She hinted that perhaps she, like Rosalee, could travel north to speak before crowds. “[I]f can do any good, please notify me at the above address for I am willing to come to New York but I has no money,” she said.
As for McGee, the July disturbances prompted his jailers to retaliate by cutting off his visitation rights. Rosalee wrote Patterson about this on August 1, 1950.
Well I feel very bad today because I can’t even visit Willie now. And I know he needs some clothes and cigarettes…. They got him in the death cell with two white men. One of the Negro trustees slip out and told me what the jailer said about me and I told Mr. Greene and he told me not to go over there.
The jailer said if I ever come over there, he was going say something to me so he could beat hell out of me and lock me up. He said if it had not been for me, the CRC never would have come down here and that he was going to keep me and my mother-in-law out his jail….
Everybody tell me you should leave here, but I feel with McGee here my job is not done and if I began to run, I can’t fight. And if I die about the truth, I won’t feel hurt at all….
Mr. Patterson, I want each and every one to know that I do thank them for helping me and I am going to fight until all Americans are free from Jim crow system. I have learned that Willie’s life is not the only one that is in danger. And I am going to fight not for one but for all. We never know who may be next.
Rosalee wrote frequently in the weeks ahead as her situation deteriorated. On August 22, she reported that she was broke, having worked “only five days since I been back” to Mississippi from her Northern trip, and that she’d been bedridden with pains in her side. The CRC lost track of her in September, but she wrote several times in October, saying she’d been out of town dealing with the September 19 death of “my oldest sister.”
Rosalee didn’t name the sister or say where she went to be with her, but she mentioned that this woman had looked after her children when she was away on her CRC travels. Seeing shadows, she speculated that her sister might have been murdered to interfere with her CRC work. “[T]hey say the Doctor kill her so [my children] wouldn’t have no place to stay when I am away. The Doctor gave her shot and cort a stroke….”
Rosalee also had a problem with Percy Greene, publisher of the Jackson Advocate, whose support of McGee apparently ended with the July incidents. She described her conflicts with him in several letters, but they boiled down to two things: She accused Greene of withholding money the CRC had sent to her through him, and she said he was harassing her about the foolishness of staying involved with Communists.
On October 24, she wrote, “I went to see Mr. Greene, to the one I thought was my friend and I hate to say this but he turn me out so cold I was just like a lost sheep from the fold. But I want you all to no that I didn’t get the money and I am not going to do what he told me. Commie or whatever the peoples was, I know that save my husband life.”
It’s hard to separate fact from fiction in these letters—there’s another one in this period by Gracie Lee McGee, supposedly mailed from Laurel. But, overall, there’s a consistency to the tone and details. Rosalee was having a hard time getting by: She still appeared to be taking care of real children, and she still believed in McGee and the CRC’s larger mission.
“I was working at two places but one of the lady wanted me to work all day for one dollar and a half and some old clothes,” she said in one letter. “…I’m not going to be a dog for no one when Willie have been facing death for 1,829 days…. I don’t have dime but I am willing to suffer and wait for Willie.”
McGee started sending letters again in August, usually to Lottie Gordon, thanking her for the CRC’s support and the care packages she sent. Months later, when Christmas came around, Gordon arranged to have gifts sent to Willie, Rosalee, and the kids. Rosalee put together a wish list from the four McGee children, and Gordon sent along two winter coats, a football, a cap, and a watch. Willie asked for a modest creature comfort: pajamas.
“I wear a medium size pajama suit,” he wrote in late November. “I not a very big man at all.” They arrived in time, and he wrote Gordon a thank-you note on December 26. “[T]hey was just right,” he said, “and I like them.”
Another person who suffered setbacks that summer was John Poole. His conduct in the McGee case had angered powerful people in Mississippi, and they started coming after him in a way that left no doubt they were in it for the long haul.
The opening move was the disbarment action filed on July 22 by various Laurel officials. Their petition to the Mississippi Bar Association charged that Poole was unfit to practice because he was “aligned with and employed by subversive and communistic elements.” They also alleged unscrupulous conduct for making false charges and filing false motions. Here, they were referring to Poole’s claim at the third trial that the prosecution had tampered with the grand-jury selection process, and to the unacceptable manner, in their view, in which he’d pursued the question of whether Mrs. Hawkins had “consented” to the rape.
Dixon Pyles had poked the same sore spots—why hadn’t he been attacked? There were two main reasons. First, Pyles got out of the case before people paid much attention, while Poole was in the thick of it at the worst possible times: during the third trial and the CRC’s “invasion.” In addition, Poole’s libel suit—which eventually went to trial before a federal jury in Jackson—guaranteed the long-term wrath of people like Fred Sullens.
The libel trial happened prior to the CRC protests, in late June 1950. It wasn’t transcribed and it received little coverage—even in Jackson newspapers—but it was a full-blown proceeding, complete with testimony that took up two and a half days. Jurors heard from Sullens, from Laurel officials like Judge Collins, and from fifteen character witnesses who spoke up for Poole. He had sixty-five supporters lined up, but the presiding judge, Sidney Mize, called that number “undue” and told his lawyers to pare it down.
Poole was kept on the defensive throughout—the trial was really about him, after all. Under oath, he admitted to taking money from the CRC but said he was working for a client, not an ideology, and that his right to do so should be unquestioned. “I just took their money to defend a man and I would take yours,” he told Tom Watkins. “I think it is entirely two different things, if I take money to go out and try to overthrow the government, and another thing, to defend a man.”
Poole was attacked for questioning the grand-jury process and for smearing Mrs. Hawkins. When Sullens took the stand, he said that, for these and other reasons, he proudly stood by his editorial. “Clarifying his meaning, he said he meant by ‘lousy’ not that Poole was ‘lice-infested’ but was ‘sub-standard or below par,’” the Jackson Daily News said in its story about the trial. “Regarding the word ‘conscienceless,’ he said that any lawyer ‘who would willfully besmirch the name of a woman who had been through dire tragedy’ is ‘conscienceless.’
“‘I meant that then, and I mean it now,’ he declared.”
For Poole, the problem—as always—was the jury: a panel of white men whose attitudes about race, women, and Communism were the same as those of McGee’s trial jurors. After deliberating for four hours, they ruled on June 29 that no libel had occurred.
The next day, in a triumphant Jackson Daily News front-page story, Sullens said the victory was not his alone. “The invasion of Southern courts by Northern interventionists bent on saving the lives of proven Negro rapists was repudiated here…by a Federal Court jury,” the article began. “…The jury in effect…backed the right of the Jackson Daily News to continue to interpret the news fearlessly and courageously.”
The loss was a crushing blow to Poole, a young lawyer who, according to a federal judge and jury, had been proved to be “lousy and conscienceless.” This, coupled with the fallout from the CRC’s Jackson protests, made him finally decide he’d had enough. On August 16, he withdrew as McGee’s lawyer, distancing himself from the CRC in a statement released to the press.
“I am not a member of the Civil Rights Congress, and I am not associated with it in any manner whatever,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I strongly object to the actions of its members when they were in Jackson.”
Unfortunately, Poole was past the point where he could just walk away. In Laurel, Albert Easterling called his statement a transparent act of appeasement, saying, “He is in direct peril as a result of his own acts and with more zeal and fervor we shall press our charges against him.” As it turned out, Fred Sullens wasn’t finished with him either.
William Patterson was heading for legal problems himself, ones that would torment him for years. At issue was the oft-argued question of whether an organization like the CRC, a politically active nonprofit with Communist members, had a right to keep its records private. Committees like HUAC had long used Congress’s power to punish people for contempt—with penalties ranging from fines to jail time, all duly litigated in federal courts—as a tool to pry information from suspect organizations or to put their leaders in jail.
On August 3 and 4, Patterson was called before the House Select Committee on Lobbying Activities, which ordered him to hand over CRC records, including the names of people who contributed to the group. He refused. In the process, he made a Georgia congressman so angry that their exchanges nearly ended in a brawl.
During Patterson’s second day as a witness, he maintained that the committee’s harassment was keeping him from doing his real job: defending the civil rights of people like Willie McGee and Rosa Lee Ingram, a black woman from Georgia who was serving a life sentence, along with two of her sons, for the 1947 killing of a white man named John Stratford. Ingram said Stratford had tried to molest her and that one of her sons struck him in self-defense. As Patterson knew, all three were originally sentenced to death, and during his testimony he denounced the case as a legal lynching. This angered Henderson Lanham, a sixty-one-year-old congressman from Rome, Georgia, who was the committee’s acting chairman. He said the state of Georgia had never lynched anybody and called Patterson a liar.
“The state of Georgia tried to lynch nine men in the Scottsboro case,” Patterson shot back. “Georgia is a state of lynchers.” He misspoke—as he certainly knew, Scottsboro happened in Alabama. But he’d made his point, which he stood by. “A black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect in Georgia,” he said.
“You’re a liar,” Lanham said. “If any state is fair to niggers, it’s Georgia.”
Patterson stared at him a moment, seething, and then said, “You’re a liar too.”
That did it for Lanham. Shouting “Black son of a bitch!” he jumped out of his chair and ran toward Patterson with his fists clenched. Two capitol policemen stopped him and dragged him back to the committee-room dais, where, according to a report in the New York Compass, “he paced back and forth repeating the epithet four more times….”
The Compass story was accompanied by a Ted Thackrey editorial that apologized for quoting the congressman’s foul language before reminding readers, in a somber tone, what this incident exposed: American fascism at its worst. “Have the apostles of Hitler become so bold that no lover of democracy is left in the House with sufficient courage and decency to denounce them when their acts are clear and indulged in as House officials?”
Apparently so: Lanham was never penalized. Months later he wisecracked that, if he had it to do over again, he would have called Patterson a Communist SOB instead. Patterson was cited for contempt of Congress in late August. In November, he was indicted in federal district court in Washington. For the rest of the time that Patterson worked to keep Willie McGee alive, he would also have to fight to keep himself out of jail.
The bomb that never dropped during the Jackson invasion—which Abzug hinted at when she pleaded before Justice Burton—was an affidavit by Rosalee McGee, which had been put to paper in Washington on July 25. As sworn statements go, it’s a strange one, since large portions of it can’t be true. The central premise is that Rosalee was married to Willie—living in Laurel and helping raise their four children—during the crucial years in the early 1940s when, according to this version, his affair with Mrs. Hawkins got going. But Rosalee was living in the Lexington and Durant areas at that time, married, for however long, to George Gilmore Jr.
Still, just because she was lying doesn’t rule out the possibility that the affidavit contained elements of truth. Willie could have told Rosalee a true account of what had happened to him—and how his ex-wife played into it—asking Rosalee to swear to the story in Eliza Jane’s place. But that’s the best possible interpretation for the deception. The worst is that he dragged her into a lie because it was his only chance of survival.
As for the CRC, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t have some inkling the story was suspicious, but there’s no way to know. Whatever files Abzug and Poole kept on the case have not survived, and there’s nothing in the CRC papers about it. In the FBI file on McGee, buried in a July 25 report from the Washington, D.C., field office, there’s one hint that Abzug was worried about Rosalee’s veracity. An informant told the Bureau that McGee’s lawyers had presented a copy of Rosalee’s affidavit to U.S. attorney general J. Howard McGrath and Democratic National Committee chairman William M. Boyle Jr., “with the threat that it would be published unless they take some action on it.” But the informant also said Abzug was “fearful of publishing affidavit in present form for fear it may contain inaccuracies as to dates and places.”
That could mean almost anything, though. Abzug may have merely thought the document needed basic fact-checking. Still, it would be a long time before the CRC went public with it: not until March 1951. From then on, even though the affidavit was full of false statements, McGee supporters would treat it as proof that Mrs. Hawkins had lied.
The story Rosalee told began “back in 1936 and 1937,” when she said McGee and Troy Hawkins were both working at the Masonite plant in Laurel. This led to McGee’s getting hired to do yard work and housecleaning at the Hawkins home.
“As far as I can remember, starting at least back in 1942, before Willie went into the Army, Mrs. Hawkins used to come to our house and ask for Willie,” Rosalee said. “The first time she came, she asked me where Willie was. I told her Willie wasn’t home and asked her what she wanted. She told me she wanted him to work in her yard.
“That night I asked Willie, ‘What she want?’ So he tell me, ‘Next time she come, tell her to go away. She don’t want me to work in no yard.’”
Willie’s departure for the army solved the problem until 1943, when he came back to Laurel and resumed married life with Rosalee. But Mrs. Hawkins quickly swooped in. Willie and Rosalee were walking home from the movies one night, around 10:30, when she came out of an alley and tried to force Willie to get in her car.
“I got so mad I said, ‘What’s that!’” Rosalee said. “And I started to pull him away.
“And Willie himself he told her, ‘Go ’way. This is my wife. I’m with my wife.’
“So she says to Willie out loud, ‘Don’t fool with no Negro whores.’”
Willie told Rosalee everything that night. How the affair had started and why he was powerless to end it. How Mrs. Hawkins was threatening to expose him to harm if he didn’t do what she wanted.
“Down South, you tell a woman like that no, and she’ll cry rape anyway,” Rosalee said. “So what else could Willie do.” His first impulse was to gather his family and leave town, but “we didn’t have no money for Willie and me and the four children, all of us to go away. So Willie went away to California by himself.”
Rosalee didn’t say how long he was gone. When he came back, homesick, the affair started again. Rosalee’s account said nothing about why Willie went to the Hawkins home on the night of the alleged rape—presumably, it was just another date—but she said it was common knowledge that Troy and Willette “had a big argument” that night and that Troy was seen “chasing her right out into the street at five o’clock in the morning—they say her husband was about ready to kill her that night.
“So I guess to save herself from her husband,” Rosalee concluded, “she figured she would say she was raped and get Willie lynched.”
Abzug filed McGee’s latest Supreme Court appeal on November 22, 1950, but even at this critical moment she didn’t mention Rosalee’s dramatic claims. In hindsight, that seems like a tactical blunder. But at the time, and in the context of what Abzug was asking the Court to do, it made sense.
The goal was to get a reversal of Harvey McGehee’s refusal to grant a writ of error coram nobis, leading to a new jury trial where the evidence would, at last, be presented. As any lawyer knew, it wasn’t the Supreme Court’s job to retry a case based on new evidence, so Abzug decided it would suffice to describe the allegations in general terms while explaining why she’d thought it necessary to follow the same strategy with the Mississippi Supreme Court. Thus, the appeal said that any sex Mrs. Hawkins had with McGee was “voluntary,” and that she’d lied on the stand. But it didn’t fill in the blanks, which reporters and Supreme Court clerks couldn’t help but notice.
The Clarion Ledger said of the brief: “It is charged, without proof so far, that false testimony was presented against the Negro.” Louis Lautier, a Washington-based writer with the National Negro Publishers Association, gave Abzug’s argument careful scrutiny for an article distributed to African-American newspapers, and he seemed to guess what was left out—and what would come later. “Attorneys for Willie McGee…hint strongly in a petition for a review of the case that the prosecutrix was not ravished,” he wrote. “…[McGee] charges that the State knew the prosecutrix lied when she testified that the alleged ‘sexual intercourse’ which took place November 2, 1945, constituted an act of rape.”
Supreme Court clerk Murray L. Schwartz, writing again for Chief Justice Vinson in an undated circulating memo, wrote, “[I]t should be pointed out that it now appears to be petitioner’s argument that the intercourse from which the rape charge arises took place voluntarily on the part of the prosecutrix….” As Schwartz explained, the Mississippi Supreme Court had denied the writ because the defense failed to present witnesses and evidence supporting its claims. In Abzug’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said there was a good reason for that: If she’d used her witnesses in front of McGehee, there would have been so much community hostility against them that they wouldn’t have dared testify again.
“If [Willie McGee] had attempted to produce them at a preliminary hearing in the Mississippi Supreme Court, their identity would have become known and popular passion would have restrained them from testifying at the full hearing,” Schwartz wrote.
As he noted, there were other claims in the appeal—Abzug argued that McGee had been denied equal protection because of the “gross imbalance between death sentences received by white men and Negroes for rape” and that the prosecution lied about how his confession was obtained—but the coram nobis claim was the central pillar.
It wasn’t convincing to Schwartz, however, who recommended that the Court again deny the appeal. It bothered him that the defense was asking the justices to accept it on faith that the new evidence, whatever it was, warranted a fourth trial.
“[I]t seems to me that…it was incumbent upon petitioner to indicate to the Miss. Supreme Court, and indeed to this Court, what his evidence is, to warrant the holding of a trial on the issues,” he wrote.
“…Whatever doubts there may be as to the validity of this conviction, I do not see how it can be said that the failure to hold a hearing on the allegations of the petition was a denial of a federal right.”
John G. Burnett, a clerk for William O. Douglas, agreed. “It seems doubtful to me that it would be appropriate for this Court to reverse and direct issuance of the writ solely on the basis of unsupported allegations,” he wrote in a memo dated January 11, 1951. “It may be true that community passions are at such a level that it would be justifiable not to present witnesses at these proceedings. But, absent evidence, the state court would seem in the best position to take judicial notice of such facts and excuse the failure to present witnesses.”
Four days later, the Court declined to hear the case, and the optimism of 1950 instantly became the despair of 1951. In Jackson, Fred Sullens beat his chest. In a January 17 Jackson Daily News editorial called “No More Interference,” he talked about McGee’s lawyers in the same insulting terms that had prompted Poole’s libel suit. “This should end the matter,” he wrote, “…from now on any lousy, conscienceless lawyer who seeks to defeat the ends of justice in the Willie McGee case should be branded as a public enemy and treated as such.”
As word spread among McGee’s supporters, the seriousness of this setback was unmistakable. The Daily Worker was eloquent that day, publishing an editorial that mourned the outcome but promised victory down the road.
“These judges fear the freedom-seeking, 14,000,000 Negro people trampled on inside the U.S. by the ‘white supremacy’ system,” it said.
“The judges are a part of that system. They work to uphold it….
“When they crush the liberties of the Negro victims, they also crush the liberties of the entire nation. Lincoln knew that this was the battle-line. We must know it, and act on that knowledge.”
In Mississippi, Bessie McGee wrote the CRC from Laurel, plaintively asking, what now? “My hart is hurt after I saw what I did in the paper about Willie,” she said. “I aint been well at all. I rote Bella and I sent her Friday paper about [this] and I just want to no what are you all going to [do] now.”
For several days, the CRC was unable to find Rosalee to let her know. Aubrey Grossman wanted her to come north again, to take part in public protests over the McGee and Martinsville Seven cases. She turned up in late January, writing three letters in quick succession, explaining that she’d taken the children to Lexington because they were upset by the bad news and saying that, yes, she would be glad to travel wherever they wanted her to go.
“I was dead broke until i got to Jackson and found the money order from Lottie,” she wrote on the 24th. “[Y]ou ask me bout going to va. yes i will go where ever you wont me to go.”
She didn’t make that trip, however, and she couldn’t have done much good if she had. The Martinsville Seven were dead within two weeks.
Since taking over the CRC, Patterson had vigorously pursued his “mass defense” strategy in the McGee case and had been successful at bringing attention to a story that was overlooked before he came along. If he’d had his way, the CRC would have used the same tactics with several high-profile cases from that era, but there was a problem. The NAACP had control of many of them—including the trials of Rosa Lee Ingram and the Martinsville Seven—and its officials never relented about treating the CRC as a pariah organization.
Patterson’s public reaction to this was confusion and hurt feelings. The CRC and NAACP were working for the same thing—racial justice—so why couldn’t they work together? But the NAACP may have been right to mistrust his intentions. In 1947, an FBI informant reported on Patterson’s attendance at a meeting of Communist Party leaders in New York. One issue was Communist strategy in relation to the NAACP, and Patterson said it had been decided that the goal was to infiltrate the older, larger group at the leadership level.
“Informant stated that he learned from Subject [Patterson] that the strategy of the Party would not be to attempt to completely capture the NAACP but merely to guide its policies by electing Communists to the executive board of that organization,” said an FBI report from late 1947. “The same informant advised that on August 30, 1947 he had attended a meeting of the Negro Commission of the Communist Party and that Subject had presided as chairman. At this meeting it was decided that the Communist Party would send their people into the NAACP and prepare to put up a struggle to place trade union members on the NAACP executive board.”
The Martinsville Seven case, which came to an end in early February 1951, is a good example of how the NAACP kept the CRC at bay. Early on, Patterson had attempted to get a CRC loyalist attached to the case, announcing in June 1949 that the group would provide a lawyer who would request a new trial for one of the convicted men, Francis DeSales Grayson. But Martin A. Martin, the NAACP’s chief lawyer for the Martinsville cases, announced that any association between the two organizations was out of the question. “Our firm and the NAACP cannot at this time be associated in any way with any organization which has been declared subversive by the United States Attorney General,” he said.
Cooperation wouldn’t have worked anyway, since the groups had opposite views of the best strategy. Martinsville was different from the McGee case in one key respect: Many people, including people who wanted to save the defendants’ lives, believed that at least some of the men had raped Ruby Floyd—a conclusion later shared by criminal justice professor Eric W. Rise in his 1995 book, The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment. During its appeals, the NAACP didn’t argue the question of guilt or innocence; instead it argued that the men hadn’t received a proper trial or fair sentancing. In a letter to the Nation written after the case ended, NAACP lawyers explained, “The question of their guilt or innocence was not raised by us, for under the law a person is presumed to be innocent until proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt after having had a fair trial. The NAACP has maintained that these men did not get a fair trial and that therefore the presumption of their innocence remains.”
Patterson treated Martinsville as another sham rape charge. “The alleged victim was well known to be a prostitute as well as a mentally retarded person, and there was no evidence that a rape had taken place,” he wrote in The Man Who Cried Genocide. As in the McGee campaign, however, that claim wasn’t proven—it was only asserted, and in Ruby Floyd’s case, it seems especially doubtful that the CRC had it right.
Floyd was a Jehovah’s Witness who often sold used clothing and vegetables in black neighborhoods. According to her story, she was out trying to collect an unpaid debt on some clothing—accompanied by an eleven-year-old African-American boy named Charlie Martin—when they came across a group of four young black males gathered near a stretch of railroad tracks. When they passed by again after finishing their errand, Floyd said, she was dragged into a stand of woods and raped, first by the four men who originally spotted her, and later by three more who came along when they heard about what was going on. That evening, according to Rise, she turned up at the door of a woman named Mary Wade, “clad only in her shirt, sweater, and a torn slip.” She had scratched arms, tangled hair, and, said Wade, “her thighs were rubbed red-like.”
There were other witnesses as well. Charlie Martin testified that he saw four of the men attack her. Josephine Grayson—the wife of defendant Francis DeSales Grayson—was walking along the tracks with another woman when Floyd staggered out of the woods, fell into her arms, and begged for help. She didn’t get any, and Floyd was shortly dragged back into the woods by a defendant named Joe Henry Hampton.
After all the men were found guilty in April and May 1949, the NAACP’s lawyers tried a variety of appeals—including a failed appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, based on Virginia’s discriminatory application of the death penalty for rape. As Rise explained in The Martinsville Seven, Martin A. Martin drew on various studies to press this claim, including one that showed that “93 percent of the men executed for rape in thirteen southern states between 1938 and 1948 were black.” In early 1951, however, the Court declined to take the case. The same arguments were also used, without success, in McGee’s appeals.
Shut out of the courtrooms, the CRC made its contribution in the streets. In late January, it helped organize a “mass pilgrimage” designed to persuade Governor John S. Battle or President Truman to stop the executions. In Washington, CRC-affiliated writers like Dashiell Hammett and Howard Fast took part in a “death vigil” in front of the White House. The picketing went on for several days, around the clock, and was carried out in frigid temperatures. Patterson was there, escorting Mrs. Grayson and her children.
The protests had no effect. On Friday, February 2, defendants Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner, Howard Lee Hairston, and Frank Hairston Jr. were electrocuted in Richmond. On Monday the 5th, they were followed by James Hairston, John Clabon Taylor, and Francis DeSales Grayson. Among the public mourners was a 900-person mixed-race group in Richmond, who carried floral wreaths to the state capitol. There were vigils in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Harlem.
The Daily Worker mixed its words of mourning with turbulent imagery (“From their funeral pyre shot up a flame so high it was seen around the world”), while Time, offended by the Communists’ use of the case for propaganda, reflexively sneered: “The Communist calliope swung into high…. Moscow trotted out its tame intellects…. The radio of the Chinese People’s Government broadcast an appeal to stay ‘this barbaric sentence.’”
In those days, events like this often inspired protest poetry, and the bard of the Martinsville case was a man named Walter Lowenfels, a Daily Worker contributor who wrote a haunting piece called “The Martinsville Chant.” Lowenfels was moved by the sight of Mrs. Grayson, trudging back and forth on the picket line.
Singing her long, low song to its final end in silence
as she marched on the vigil the last day in front of the
White House lawn
and her eyes tightened closer and her dark face settled like
an Aztec mask
and her body drooped lower and the last sound
parted from her like the living heart ripped warm out
of the living sacrifice in the temple stones of America.
Reviewing the case in the New Leader, writer Henry Lee Moon criticized the CRC for sullying the protest efforts but was more offended by mainstream journalism, which gave surprisingly little coverage to the case. “If there were not a deliberate conspiracy to suppress the story there was certainly widespread unconcern over it, as though the sacrifice of seven lives for a single crime which involved no loss of life were an everyday occurrence,” he wrote. He called it a “ghastly spectacle” that could only encourage anti-American sentiment abroad. “Not only the Communists,” he said, “but millions of others must ask why the death penalty for rape is reserved exclusively for Negroes.”
On February 3, 1951, McGee signed an affidavit before the Hinds County chancery clerk that gave his account of what had happened between him and Mrs. Hawkins, and it would color every event from then on. He’d told the story privately to his trial lawyers in 1946 and 1948, but this version was simpler because it was stripped of two dramatic plot elements: There was no mention of McGee’s impregnating Mrs. Hawkins and not a word about their alleged scheme to murder Troy.
McGee either forgot these details (which seems impossible), dropped them because they weren’t true or because he was afraid he’d be lynched, or dropped them because his lawyers told him he had to. In any event, the “double indemnity” plotline was gone. It was replaced by a more conventional tale of a lust-driven affair that came to an end when McGee, as he told it, was caught by Troy Hawkins and framed to save Willette’s reputation.
The 1946 version was much longer and featured a different timetable about when the affair started. It began with McGee’s account of his life story, in which he listed various jobs he’d held up through 1941. The years between 1941 and 1944 were largely skipped, but he said the affair started in August 1944. He didn’t mention doing household or yard work prior to then for the Hawkins family. He said Mrs. Hawkins had flirted with him once when he offered to carry something for her, but that the affair didn’t commence until she invited him inside her home one day to wash windows and wax floors, seducing him in a bedroom.
In 1951’s compressed version, McGee only mentioned working at Masonite, saying he was there “in the late nineteen thirties” and that, during this period, he started doing house and yard chores for various white people in Laurel, including Troy Hawkins, who had worked at Masonite at the same time. He didn’t say when the affair began, only that Mrs. Hawkins made sexual overtures while he was inside the house, and that he returned frequently for more encounters. McGee feared the consequences, so “I went to California about the year 1944 because I knew what was happening would one way or another come out and get me killed.”
Thus, the new version had McGee running away from the affair in the same year that, in the old version, it started. Later—McGee didn’t say when—he came back, and Mrs. Hawkins “renewed the acquaintance.” She would turn up at his house looking for him, which made his wife suspicious. He alluded to the same incident that Rosalee had described in her statement from July 25, 1950, in which Mrs. Hawkins harassed them on the streets one night. That story was absent from his 1946 account.
The most interesting new detail concerned what allegedly happened when Troy discovered the truth. In 1946, McGee said he had gone to the Hawkins home on the Thursday night before the alleged rape, had sex with Willette, and backed out of the murder plot. Now, in 1951, McGee said that “the night before the night on which they claim I raped her”—which meant Wednesday, October 31—“I went by the house about 10:30 or a little later to get some money from her. While I was there Mr. Hawkins unexpectedly came in and I was in the house although I was not at the time doing anything wrong and Mr. Hawkins said angrily, ‘What in the God Damn Hell does this mean,’ and he grabbed me and I shoved him back and I ran out of the door. That night I came to the house on foot. The following night when they claim I raped her, I had the truck but I did not go to Mr. Hawkin’s [sic] house or anywhere near it.”
McGee’s implication was that Troy and Willette decided to hoax the rape and frame him, to cover up their shame and get revenge. The statement concluded with McGee explaining why he hadn’t told this story before. He said he had but that his lawyer, John Poole, “told me that if I said anything about it I’d get both him and myself killed.”