The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)


On February 5, the Mississippi Supreme Court set a new execution date for McGee: March 20, 1951. Bella Abzug and John Coe were already working on new federal appeals, and this time they included details of the affair, making McGee’s bombshell story part of the package from then on.

The claim started showing up in left-wing newspapers just before Abzug and Coe presented it in court. The Daily Worker mentioned it first, on February 25, summarizing what McGee had said and adding something that wasn’t in his statement: the charge that Mrs. Hawkins “threatened to cry rape and place him at the mercy of the lynch mob if he didn’t agree to the relationship.”

That language was from CRC press materials, which appear to have taken details from both Rosalee’s and Willie’s statements and, in the process, added a few new twists. The Daily People’s World used the same information in a story published on March 2, which claimed, “The relationship was well known in the community, thus moving white supremacists to press feverishly for McGee’s death.”

Abzug and Coe presented their new material on March 5, when they filed a petition for habeas corpus with Judge Sidney Mize, who heard them at the federal district court in Vicksburg. Their summary contained more precise dates than McGee’s affidavit. They said Willie and Troy first started working together at Masonite in either 1936 or 1937 and that, “[b]eginning about the year 1941,” McGee began doing odd jobs for the Hawkins family. The affair started a year later and continued with only two interruptions: during McGee’s army service in “1942 or 3 and by a later period of residence in California after he was discharged from the Army.” During all this time, they said, the Hawkins family lived at 435 South Magnolia Street in Laurel.

That was wrong—the Hawkinses were in Indiana for part of that time—but what is more interesting is how messy the affair story was becoming. Already, it was a blend of two different stories by McGee, a fabricated story by Rosalee, the lawyers’ input, and new flourishes supplied by Communist journalists like Harry Raymond.

A month before, in February, Raymond had written a CRC-and Communist Party–sponsored pamphlet called Save Willie McGee, which based its arguments on the old claims used at the clemency hearing in 1950. There was no mention of an affair back then, and the pamphlet did nothing more than hint at it, relating a rumor that Troy and Willette had had a fight on the night of the rape. Henceforth, the Daily Worker would write about the affair as if it were an established fact. Not only had it happened, the paper would argue, it had been widely known in Laurel for years.

There was one other thing in the mix—a second alibi. Abzug and Coe had a new affidavit in hand, taken on March 4 from Florida-based Hettie Johnson. Her story was that McGee was at her house all through the night of the rape, drinking and gambling. She said her husband and some other men had a game going across the street that migrated to her house around 11:00. McGee and Bill Barnes were part of the group, and Johnson recalled hearing McGee say he was “going to take a chance with some of the company’s money.”

Johnson got sleepy and lay down, but she was in a sufficiently “wakeful state” to feel sure that the game kept going and that McGee stayed put. Around daylight an argument broke out, with Johnson’s husband threatening to hit McGee over the head with a pistol. McGee lost his temper because he’d gambled away Laurel Wholesale Grocery cash that wasn’t his to lose.

“Willie said he had messed up the boss man’s money and he would have to go to his wife and get some,” Johnson said. He left in the company truck, accidentally hitting another man’s truck with enough force that “a small piece was knocked off of the body of Willie’s truck, which lay in the street the next day.”

Johnson said she’d been prepared to tell this story at the first trial and was subpoenaed, but with the trial in progress she was taken aside at the courthouse and threatened for having allowed gambling and bootleg whiskey in her home. Her details sounded specific: Wayne Valentine served the subpoena, she said, and at the courthouse she was “taken into a little room where there were some soldiers and two policemen or deputy sheriff’s [sic] with guns, and some gentleman who was acting for the state….”

The affidavit contained one other notable detail. Johnson said she was working at the time as a maid for “Mrs. Delia Lennon”—the correct spelling was Leonard—who was Mrs. Hawkins’s aunt, and that she went to work at her home at 7:30 on the morning after the rape.

“[W]hen she got there,” the statement said, “…Mrs. Lennon said that something awful had happened that night to ‘Bill,’ as Mrs. Wiletta Hawkins was known, and Mrs. Lennon said that a ‘nigger’ had come into her house and raped her.” Johnson asked her how they knew the rapist was black. Leonard said Willette had felt his hair. She added that “Mrs. Hawkins might have had a nightmare, and ‘she was hoping that that was what it was,’ because she did not see how Mrs. Hawkins could have been raped with her husband and children in the next room.”

Taken together, the new information was tantalizing and confusing. Johnson’s statement could have been checked out—starting with the damaged truck and Mrs. Leonard’s comments. But it was also puzzling, because it took McGee’s alibi in two directions. He was innocent because, yes, he was regularly having sex with Mrs. Hawkins inside her home, at her insistence. He was also innocent because he wasn’t there the night she was raped.

Mize didn’t linger over the mysteries. He rejected all of them, saying the defense lawyers should have presented any new evidence at the third trial. He refused to grant a stay to permit time for further appeals, so Abzug and Coe hurriedly moved their petition up the line, going first to the Fifth Circuit, which also said no, and next, on March 15, lodging an appeal for a stay with the U.S. Supreme Court.

In her 1977 book, A Fine Old Conflict, British-born writer Jessica Mitford tells the story of her adventurous involvement with the McGee case during these months, in a chapter called “Mississippi.” It starts with a cross-country road trip that she and three other CRC-sponsored women made in March from Oakland, California, to Jackson, where they went door to door trying to solicit public support for McGee—usually with dim results. It climaxes with the group, whose members called themselves the White Women’s Delegation, trying one last tactic on its way out of the state: On March 20, they dropped in unannounced at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s stately home in Oxford—a small, historic university town in north Mississippi. Their goal was to convince the great man, who four months earlier had won the Nobel Prize, to issue a statement on McGee’s behalf.

“We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house,” Mitford recalled in the book, a memoir of her fifteen years as a Communist Party member. “‘Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,’ was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country.”

There aren’t any pictures of this meeting, but judging by photos taken around the time of the trip, the women would have dressed up. Rowan Oak, now owned and maintained by the University of Mississippi, is a large white Greek Revival house with a distinctive entrance: a brick walkway leading through an alley of tall cedar trees to a columned portico. After tapping over the bricks, the women rang or knocked and Faulkner himself invited them in. Mitford doesn’t say where they sat, but he probably took them into a parlor that opened up to the right, or to a library on the left, which contained simple white bookshelves he’d built by hand.

Wrapped in a velvet smoking jacket, the silver-haired novelist spoke in what Mitford called “convoluted paragraphs…of murky eloquence” about his belief that McGee was innocent. “I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence,” she wrote. “The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories.”

They left after two hours, and then Mitford called William Patterson in New York to tell him about the interview. Patterson was excited—Faulkner’s opinions would make news—but he told Mitford she had to get him to sign a release, so he couldn’t deny his own words later. Mitford trooped back to Rowan Oak and found Faulkner, who was doing horse-stable chores with a black employee. Standing there in manure-splashed hip boots, he scanned and initialed a statement Mitford had written, then supposedly mumbled, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.”

“Oh don’t let’s put that in,” Mitford said, scurrying off to her car.

Whether it happened like that is debatable. The “snaggle-toothed white boy” sounds contrived, as if Mitford took a wrong turn onto Tobacco Road, and “Mississippi” is written in a style that blends fact with manufactured comedy, which Mitford sometimes did during her long career as a humorous memoirist and muckraking journalist. The interview was real, though, and the story got picked up in newspapers. Faulkner wasn’t quoted directly. He had asked Mitford to paraphrase what he said, and she honored that. But what she got was juicy enough.

Oxford, Mississippi—William Faulkner, 1950 Nobel Prize winner for literature, whose novels on Mississippi life are world-famous, has expressed his belief that Willie McGee, Mississippi negro worker awaiting execution on a false rape conviction, is innocent and should be freed….

Explaining that he did not for a moment doubt McGee’s innocence, Faulkner agreed that new evidence proving perjury by the woman who charged McGee with “rape” was also true.

Mitford published an account of the interview a few days later in the Daily People’s World, writing that Faulkner “said the McGee case was an outrage and that it was good we had come. He said Southerners would listen to us where they wouldn’t listen to men.”

What she didn’t mention was that Faulkner started backing off almost immediately. An editor at the Memphis Commercial Appeal who saw the press release called Faulkner’s longtime friend Phil “Moon” Mullen, an Oxford newspaperman, to tell him it sounded like trouble. Mullen went out to see Faulkner, who, after listening to Mullen’s assessment of the likely fallout, pointed at his typewriter and said, “Sit down and write what you think I should say.” In a follow-up release, Faulkner retreated a bit but stood by his stance that McGee’s life should be spared.

“I do not want Willie McGee to be executed, because it will make him a martyr and create a long lasting stink in my native state,” he wrote. “If the crime of which he is accused was not one of force and violence, and I do not think it was proved that, then the penalty in this state or in any other similar case should not be death.”

Predictably, there was a backlash in Mississippi. On March 28 in Laurel, District Attorney Paul Swartzfager, who had known Faulkner during his school days in Oxford, labeled the comments “so untrue as to make the blood of any red-blooded American boil.” Faulkner had either been “seduced by his own fictitious imaginations or has aligned himself with the Communists.”

In a letter to a friend two days later, Faulkner moaned that he’d been bewitched. “Those people, all women, knocked on my front door without warning, no telephones in advance or anything,” he wrote. “They told me who they were, and I should have known their commie bosses wanted only a chance to use me, since I don’t think any of them really give a damn about McGee….

“I was wrong, I spoke out of turn. Was stupid, since my opinions could not change things, besides, they were private opinions which I had no intention of airing to anyone, since, as I told the people, I knew too little about the facts of the matter to go on record. I have learned a lesson, though.”

Actually, Faulkner had learned this lesson before and would learn it again. For a writer whose themes weren’t overtly political, he had a knack for getting in hot water by sounding off about subjects like Willie McGee, the Attala County massacre, and, a few years later, the lynching of Emmett Till.

His fame was double-edged. It gave him international standing as a wise man and an oracle, but it put him in a hopeless position when race was on the table. If he spoke up, most Mississippians expected him to inform the rest of the world that the existing system—segregation, white supremacy, and enforcement of the social order through any means necessary, including violence—was justified. Northerners sometimes assumed, wrongly, that he was “progressive” in the way a Henry Wallace supporter would have recognized, so they were disappointed when he sounded more Mississippi than Manhattan.

Politically, Faulkner was a Southern Democrat from a genteel, slightly threadbare background. This meant he wasn’t a Snopes, the kind of man likely to turn up cheering at a Bilbo rally. But it also meant he wasn’t comfortable with federal civil rights legislation, lectures from Northern intellectuals and politicians, or Communist Party anything. Faulkner once joked that left-wing literary colleagues of his day, describing how they perceived his politics, assigned him the label “Gothic fascist.”

In any event, it usually worked better when he expressed his sweeping ideas about history and race in fiction instead of commentary. In 1956, in a widely publicized Q & A with a newsmagazine called the Reporter, he said he opposed both locally enforced segregation and federally enforced integration. So what was he for? His preferred path was a “middle road” that involved changing things at a slow, safe pace set by the South. Moving too fast would cause bloodshed and revolt, he predicted, adding, “[I]f it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States, even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.” This caused as much trouble up north as his McGee comments had in the South. He tried to make it go away by insisting, lamely, that he’d been “grossly misquoted.”

When Faulkner wrote about the interplay of crime, accusation, and rumor that could lead to a lynching or a legal lynching—which he did in the 1931 short story “Dry September” and the 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust—he didn’t have to look far for background material. Though Oxford wasn’t among the worst lynching towns in Mississippi, lynchings had happened there, and Faulkner would have known about a couple of them.

When he was ten, an accused murderer named Nelson, or Nelse, Patton was killed by local vigilantes who chased off the sheriff, knocked holes through walls of the Oxford jail, shot Patton, scalped him, and hanged him on the courthouse lawn. In 1935, murder-trial defendant Ellwood Higginbotham—whose jury, in the opinion of some townspeople, was taking too long to reach the desired guilty verdict—was taken from jail, driven out of town, shot, and hanged. “[T]he black put up a strong fight, but was subdued by the mob and a well-rope looped over his head,” the Clarion-Ledger reported. “In the struggle the negro managed to get the noose in his mouth and fought so strongly that the mob finally took a tire tool to get the rope loose from his jaws.”

When Faulkner addressed lynching as a theme, he was, true to form, tugged in two directions. “Dry September,” which appeared in the January 1931 edition of Scribner’s Magazine, tells the story of an innocent man, Will Mayes, who gets lynched because of a false rumor that he sexually assaulted a white spinster named Minnie Cooper. For dramatic reasons—and perhaps for taste reasons—Faulkner shied away from depicting the lynching itself. Readers were shown the events leading up to it and the aftermath, but not the killing, so the story delivered tension in place of horror. Nonetheless, the political message was clear: Lynching was wrong, it sometimes led to the death of innocent men, and its continued existence was a curse on the land.

So said Faulkner the artist. The next month, Faulkner the opiner wrote a letter about lynching to the editor of the Commercial Appeal, and he sounded like a different person. Headlined “Mobs Sometimes Right,” it was a response to an earlier letter from a black man named W. H. James, a resident of Starkville, Mississippi, who had written to express his general gratitude to women of Mississippi who had joined a Southern anti-lynching advocacy group. “The good women felt that something needed to be done,” he wrote. “…I feel that we have some friends who will protect us against the crime which has been perpetrated against so many of us without even a possible chance to prove our innocence or guilt.”

For some reason, this irritated Faulkner, who wrote a long reply arguing that, while mob justice was wrong, he had never heard, “outside of a novel or a story,” of a lynching victim who had “a record beyond reproach.” He failed to mention that he had just published a short story starring such a man.

“It just happens that we—mobber and mobbee—live in this age,” he concluded. “We will muddle through, and die in our beds, the deserving and the fortunate among us. Of course, with the population what it is, there are some of us that won’t. Some will die rich, and some will die on cross-ties soaked with gasoline, to make a holiday. But there is one curious thing about mobs. Like our juries, they have a way of being right.”

Seventeen years later, Faulkner published his grand statement on the subject: Intruder in the Dust, the story of Lucas Beauchamp, an innocent black man accused of murdering a rural white named Vinson Gowrie, whose relatives were known to be violent and vengeful. Lucas is not only blameless, he’s clever enough to control his own fate by convincing two white people to perform dangerous detective work that proves his innocence.

From the get-go, Faulkner meant for Intruder in the Dust to be read as both an artistic and a political statement. “The story is a mystery-murder though the theme is more [the] relationship between Negro and white,” he said in a letter to a book agent, “…the premise being that the white people in the south, before the North or the govt. or anyone else, owe and must pay a responsibility to the Negro.”

For all its literary trappings, the novel was partly a defense of the “middle road.” When Lucas is arrested and taken to jail in downtown Jefferson (Faulkner’s fictional version of Oxford), lynch talk is already in the air. Lucas calls out to the book’s other central figure, a white sixteen-year-old named Charles “Chick” Mallison Jr., that he needs help from Chick’s Uncle Gavin, a local lawyer. By this point, we know from a flashback that Lucas and the boy have met before. On a winter day four years earlier, Chick had fallen through creek ice while rabbit hunting. Lucas warmed him up inside his cabin, refusing to accept money and leaving Chick with the gnawing sense of being indebted to a black man.

Gavin and Chick go see Lucas in jail. Gavin doesn’t believe Lucas is innocent—he assumes he’ll lose the case and hopes, at best, to save his life. After Gavin leaves, Chick goes back inside and Lucas calls in the old debt, asking him to help prove the truth by digging up Gowrie’s body, to show that he was shot with a different handgun than the .41 Colt that Lucas owns. In a passage loaded with meaning about the future sources of change, Chick ponders why Lucas would ask him to do such a thing—rather than his uncle or the sheriff—and recalls an earlier episode involving an old black man who chose to trust him with a secret instead of a white adult. “Young folks and womens, they ain’t cluttered,” the man had said. “They can listen. But a middle-year man like your paw and your uncle, they can’t listen. They ain’t got time.”

After that comes a far-fetched series of events. Chick, along with a black teenage friend named Aleck Sander and an old woman named Eunice Habersham, ventures into the dark heart of Gowrie country at night to exhume Vinson’s corpse. They find another man’s body, unmistakable evidence that something is wrong. Various twists and turns follow, and by the end Lucas is exonerated and freed.

Surprising things—even a few heroic things—happened during the long, sorry history of lynching, but there was never a story with this combination of Huck Finn plot elements. Why did Faulkner stray so far from reality? One obvious and positive reason was to create a black character who wasn’t merely a victim. But as New Yorker literary critic Edmund Wilson noticed in his 1948 review, there was a reactionary theme under the surface.

“The book contains a kind of counterblast to the anti-lynching bill and to the civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform,” he wrote. In a long speech by Gavin, Wilson detected what he took to be Faulkner’s position on civil rights: Southerners themselves, white and black, would solve their problems in time. But if the white South were pushed too hard, blacks would be thrown, in Gavin’s words, “not merely into injustice but into grief and agony, and violence, too, by forcing on us laws based on the idea that man’s injustice to man can be abolished overnight by police.”

Unlike most of Faulkner’s novels, Intruder in the Dust was well-suited to the big screen, and MGM bought the rights. It was filmed on location in Oxford in 1949, during a much-covered springtime shoot that employed a number of locals as actors and extras. The movie, which premiered in Oxford in October of that year, was hailed for its realistic depiction of Southern race relations. But it wasn’t realistic—it was a fantasy about what ought to have been. MGM filtered out the novel’s voice and complexity to emphasize the detective story and the overall sense of heroism.

Of course, a realistic depiction of lynching wouldn’t have gotten made in 1949. Whatever its faults, Intruder in the Dust was a daring project because it addressed the subject on any level. For its part, Oxford became the setting of a unique sociological experiment: How would its white citizens react to a story that depicted their town as the source of mob passion?

“Admittedly, there was much concern about the public relations problem of bringing negro actors into this small Southern city to make a motion picture of the South’s racial problems,” the Oxford Eagle reported. John Popham called it a “ticklish situation” in a New York Times story.

They reacted pretty well, partly because they caught the Hollywood bug. MGM met them more than halfway by observing all the written and unwritten race codes. Juano Hernandez, a Puerto Rican actor who played Lucas, stayed at the home of a local black undertaker and said nice things about greens and fatback. When MGM thanked Oxford’s officials, merchants, and extras in a full-page Oxford Eagle ad, it segregated the names by race.

So, as breakthroughs go, this one was limited. But man-on-the-street interviews after the premiere showed that the movie inspired serious reflection among some of Oxford’s citizens.

“It’s a shocking story, but definitely a true picture of Southern attitudes,” said Jack Odom, a former Ole Miss football player who had a speaking role as a truck driver. “A lot of people I talked to didn’t know what to make of it…. I was that way myself, but after I got home and thought about it, I began to realize that it is a true story of a misunderstanding and of how the colored people are treated. The ending is left up to the audience. People are running away, and the audience has to decide whether they’re running away from the negro after he was proved innocent or whether they were running away from themselves or the truth.” Odom’s take? “They were running away from themselves.”

Jessica Mitford was living in the Bay Area, working and writing under the name Decca Treuhaft, when the CRC put out its latest call to action about McGee in early 1951. The name she went by then was a combination of her childhood nickname, Decca, and the last name from her second marriage, to labor lawyer Robert Treuhaft. At the time, she was a housewife and Communist Party activist, not a professional writer yet. Her breakthrough books—Daughters and Rebels, a memoir of her aristocratic upbringing in England, and The American Way of Death, an exposé of the U.S. funeral industry—were still a decade off.

During the climax of the McGee case, Mitford was running the Oakland CRC office. As she recalled in A Fine Old Conflict, she opened the mail one day to find an urgent McGee appeal from New York, asking chapter members to send money, organize local actions, and provide volunteers who would travel to Mississippi to protest in person. By design, the participants would all be white women, a dramatic way to show Southerners that the very people they hoped to “protect” were disgusted by what Mississippi was about to do.

“[A] White Women’s Delegation sounded to me like a marvelous idea,” Mitford wrote. “…I was determined to be part of this great conclave.”

For the most part, Mitford describes the experience as a romp—“a thrilling adventure” and “a welcome breather from diapers and housework”—but it took real courage to do what she did. She was thirty-three in early 1951, the mother of three young children. Back then, just getting to Mississippi by car from California was a challenge. Setting out on March 5, she and the three other CRC delegates—Louise Hopson and Billie Wachter, both Berkeley housewives, and Evelyn Frieden, a union shop steward in the Bay Area—drove all the way to Jackson, with stops for meetings and canvassing en route.

They covered more than 2,600 miles on the old U.S. highway system, and they had no idea what might happen at the end of the road. They were going to Jackson as card-carrying CRC troublemakers, at a time when anti-McGee feelings were more intense than ever. Eight months earlier, in the summer of 1950, McGee’s CRC supporters had been severely beaten. For Mitford and her crew, jail time was a strong likelihood, and worse things were possible.

Mitford handled the challenge with a brand of energy and drive that was a product of her unique background and her status as a breakaway rebel—not just from middle-class convention, but from her own family. Born in 1917, in Gloucestershire, England, to David Freeman Mitford, a British lord, and Sydney Bowles, the daughter of a member of Parliament, Jessica was one of the famous Mitford sisters, women whose glamour, achievements, and political escapades mesmerized and appalled the British public throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Two of the sisters, Pam and Deborah, led fairly conventional upper-crust lives. The oldest daughter, Nancy, born in 1904, was a fiction writer best known for The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate(1949), novels that took her family’s quirks and spun them into comedy with an edge. At the center was the blustering figure of Matthew Radlett, a terrapin-hided xenophobe inspired by David. On the walls of the family estate, Matthew proudly displayed a trenching tool he had used to slaughter “the Hun” during hand-to-hand combat in World War I. To amuse himself, he liked to chase his daughters through the woods with hounds.

The real David wasn’t this crusty, and though he was far to the right politically, he was never a big fan of Adolf Hitler. But two of his daughters, Diana and Unity, were great admirers of the Nazi leader, becoming infamous prior to World War II because of their public embrace of fascism. They were exposed to fascist ideas in the 1930s, at a time when figures like Hitler and Mussolini were seen by some upper-class Brits as an acceptable bulwark against the great threat from the east: Soviet Communism.

Their youthful dabblings became more serious in early 1935, when Unity was in Munich having lunch at an outdoor restaurant called the Osteria Bavaria. She was on hand hoping to be noticed by Hitler—who, as she knew, ate there regularly—and it worked. He spotted her one day and had an aide invite her to his table, initiating a friendship that continued until the outbreak of the war. British and American newspapers never got tired of reporting that Hitler once called blonde-haired Unity “the most perfect Nordic beauty in the world.”

Diana was already married when she met Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists, a right-wing political party founded in 1932. They started an affair, left their spouses, and were married in a private ceremony in 1936 that took place at the home of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Looking on with a fatherly smile was Hitler himself. Their political activities continued, and during the spring and summer of 1940, they were arrested separately in England and locked up until 1943.

Unity made it into Hitler’s inner circle and seemed to be in love with him, though her biographer, David Pryce-Jones, concluded that there probably wasn’t a sexual relationship. There’s no question she understood what Nazism was all about. She fantasized that Germany and Britain would unite against the Soviet Union, and she hinted that she might do something drastic if the two countries went to war. After Poland fell, word trickled out of Germany that Unity had fallen “mysteriously ill.” Her condition remained unknown for months, even after her parents succeeded in bringing her back to England in January 1940. “One report was that she had been shot after a violent quarrel with Herr Hitler, who once gave her a specially made swastika badge,” the New York Times reported. “Another was that she had been found poisoned in Munich.”

In fact, she had put a pistol to her head and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered her brain and lodged at the back of her skull, but she’d somehow survived. Disfigured, partially paralyzed, and mentally impaired, she was later taken to the west coast of Scotland and lived out her days at a family property on Inch Kenneth Island, among villagers who generally treated her with kindness, as someone who had suffered enough. After her death from meningitis in 1948, an obituary writer called her “a lonely figure who spent most of her time walking the windswept moors with her spaniels.”

With so much to rebel against, Jessica made the most of it. She was the sixth of the seven Mitford children—there was also a brother, Tom, who died in 1945, fighting against the Japanese in Burma—and she served notice early that she would blaze her own trail. At eleven, she started socking away money in a “running away account.” As a teenager, she augmented her homeschooling curriculum with self-education about issues like poverty, privilege, and economic injustice.

“I became an ardent reader of the left-wing press, and even grudgingly used up a little of my Running Away Money to send for books and pamphlets explaining socialism,” she wrote in A Fine Old Conflict. “…When Boud [Unity’s nickname] became a Fascist, I declared myself a Communist. Thus by the time she was eighteen and I fifteen, we had chosen up opposite sides in the central conflict of our day.”

At first the spat was almost funny, but the gulf became real as they marched off in different directions. Jessica had a precocious younger cousin named Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill’s who, by 1935, was publishing a left-wing student magazine called Out of Bounds. Newspapers loved writing about Churchill’s “red nephew,” and Jessica developed a crush on him before they met. When the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, Esmond joined the International Brigades that formed to fight the fascist-backed troops of General Francisco Franco. He saw combat, and though he wasn’t wounded, he came down with a severe case of dysentery that got him shipped back to England.

Esmond and Jessica met in early 1937, during a country-house weekend. They hit it off, and he agreed to her suggestion that they run away to Spain, where he would work as a war correspondent. They eloped to Bilbao, and the Mitford family had yet another news-making daughter on their hands. British foreign secretary Anthony Eden used his influence to track them down, but there was no bringing them back.

“The story, with considerable embellishment, made headlines in all the papers, and many European ones, for weeks,” Mary S. Lovell wrote in The Sisters, one of several books about the Mitford clan. “‘Another Mitford Anarchist,’ ‘Consul Chases Peer’s Daughter,’ ‘Mixed Up Mitford Girls Still Confusing Europe.’” Unable to marry in Spain because of legal pressure applied by Jessica’s father, they made it official on May 18 in Bayonne, France, with both their mothers present and Esmond shaking a fist at conventionality. “Threats of imprisonment make no difference,” he said in a press release. “We both regard marriage mainly as a convenience….”

The couple spent the next few years in Britain, Corsica, and the United States, combining a life of social activism and scraping by. They moved to America in early 1939, living at various times in New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C., while plugging away at odd jobs like bartending, saleswork, and freelance writing. In 1940, they co-wrote a series of Washington Post articles that repackaged their experiences as the escapades of two love-struck kids. In pictures that accompanied the articles, Esmond was dark, cheerful, and handsome; Jessica brown-haired, round-faced, and pretty.

“[Their] background is not the sort to produce the usual stodgy comments of the ‘British Visitors Find America Wonderful’ school,” the Post said in an introduction. “Instead, the…forthcoming stories need only musical scoring to make them a latter day Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.”

Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in the summer of 1940, became a combat aviator, and was killed in late 1941 during a bombing flight. By then, Jessica was living in Alexandria, Virginia, with her ten-month-old daughter, Constancia. In time, she found a government job as a typist at the Office of Price Administration, where she met Robert Treuhaft. She transferred to San Francisco in early 1943 and became involved with the CIO-affiliated United Federal Workers of America, her way back into the realm of politics. Treuhaft followed a few months later, and they married that summer.

Jessica wasn’t very active politically in Washington, but there was already an FBI file on her, opened because Unity’s and Diana’s misadventures had put the Mitfords in the glare. In the FBI’s early assessment, the agents didn’t see red. They saw red, white, and blue. “She is said to be liberal in her political philosophy and sympathetic with Russian experiment, but loyal to Democratic principles and proud of her connection with United States Government,” said an internal report from April 1943.

Not quite. Put off by “[t]he boring and oppressive American preoccupation with material comforts,” she felt the old pull of radicalism. In the fall of 1943, Jessica and Bob were secretly invited to join the Communist Party. That same year, she signed up. It didn’t take the FBI long to notice. By February 1945, there was a new entry in J. Edgar Hoover’s “Confidential Security Index Card File,” labeled JESSICA LUCY TREUHAFT…COMMUNIST.

Mitford and the Bay Area Three hit the road the same day Abzug and Coe went before Judge Mize. One early stop was Needles, California, where they spent two hours knocking on doors and speaking with local NAACP members and preachers, including an old black minister named J. M. Caddell. (Caddell told them he was raised in Newton, Mississippi, which he called “a good place to be from.”) A few people promised to write letters, but the editor of the town newspaper brushed them off, saying, “Not local news.”

Mitford filed stories at every stop for the Daily People’s World, making the best of what she had. Her Needles dispatch began with a brisk, mission-accomplished lead: “This small railroad community of 1,000 persons, located in the heart of the Mojave desert, is going to make its contribution to the nationwide campaign to save the life of Willie McGee.” Parsed, it didn’t mean much, but it was in tune with the spirit of the trip: Whatever happened, press on.

The most important stop before Jackson was St. Louis, a rallying point for the CRC’s gathering army of white women. But as Mitford soon learned, there would be no army. Aubrey Grossman came out from New York to deliver the disheartening news that only a handful of people were heading south.

“‘Where are the others?’” Mitford asked. “[Grossman], not in the least abashed, explained there were no others—we four were the whole delegation, the generals and soldiers of this great nationwide call to action…. Nor was there any blueprint, or plan of campaign…. We should have to develop our plans on the spot when we arrived in Jackson, and he would do his best to get other women to join us there.”

Mitford was exaggerating, but only a little. A group shot taken in St. Louis shows a few other people who made the trip—three women from Chicago and Milwaukee, a white male preacher from New York—and there was a separate group of women who had been deployed from Detroit, Memphis, and other cities.

By any measure, they were an outmanned platoon, bound for Jackson at a tense time, just as word was spreading about McGee’s shocking claim of a love affair. On March 12, the Daily People’s World poured fuel on the fire by publishing a sensational story based on Rosalee McGee’s affidavit. Calling the affair and frame-up a “story of sick horror,” the paper said Rosalee “stated that Mrs. Willimetta Hawkins, the alleged white victim who claimed she’d never met McGee before, had in fact forced McGee to maintain a reluctant relationship with her dating back to 1942.”

The women made it to Jackson in a couple of days and got rooms at the local YWCA. Their routine consisted of door-to-door canvassing, with all precautions taken and proprieties observed. “We drew up strict rules of conduct,” Mitford recalled. “[N]ever venture from the Y except in pairs; work from early morning until sunset but never after dark; wear hats, stockings, and white gloves at all times.”

Before long, their presence twitched the antenna of Fred Sullens, who decided their numbers were closer to 150 than 15 and took great interest in their most mundane doings. A Jackson Daily News story reported on the activities of “two bare-legged Chicago women” who paid a call to “three indignant Jackson housewives.” The intruders waved a printed copy of Rosalee’s account of the affair and ordered the Jacksonians to read it. “The three women gasped when they read ‘Mrs.’ McGee’s ‘filthy’ letter,” the report said. “One horrified local housewife told the crusaders she knew the Negro woman never wrote that typewritten sheet of lies….

“‘I got so mad at ’em my hair was standing up on end,’” one woman said. “I told them that’s just what the Russians were using to stir up trouble in our country.”

Jackson mayor Allen Thompson issued a statement denouncing the mysterious callers. “He suggested that homeowners should ask them away and if they persisted in staying the Jackson police department is willing to co-operate,” the Jackson Daily News reported on March 16. “The action came after a meeting in City Hall Saturday morning attended by the city prosecuting attorney, city attorney, police officials and others.”

There was no justifiable reason to interfere with the canvassers. They were talking to people about a court case, which was their right—just as it was the right of homeowners to either listen, laugh, curse, or slam the door. The dialogues must have been strange, though. By and large, the members of the White Women’s Delegation didn’t know any more about McGee’s guilt or innocence than the people they were lecturing. They were pushing a party line, which they accepted without question because they believed in the cause and the political system behind it. Most of their listeners embraced a party line too—Southern orthodoxy on race relations—so it wasn’t an easy sell.

Mitford approached the task with characteristic gusto. As she had done in Needles and St. Louis, she kept a careful tally of how the pro-McGee arguments were received:

Hostile (we don’t want outsiders, etc.): 12

Listened to us but wouldn’t discuss their own opinion: 8

Convinced of McGee’s guilt, but willing to listen: 7

At first convinced of his guilt, but changed mind on the basis of our discussion: 5

Convinced of his innocence, but made no commitment to act: 7

Pledged action, talk to neighbors, write Truman, Gov. Wright: 4

Mitford also collected anecdotes that she used in her reports and, years later, her book. A female teacher visiting Jackson for a convention told her, “I’ve always been skeptical about this rape business. I’m convinced it is almost impossible to rape a woman if she really doesn’t want it.” Another woman claimed it was widely known that the CRC people who were injured in 1950 had beaten themselves up with a lamp. An anonymous woman told her, “I lived for many years in Laurel, and still have friends there. It is common talk in Laurel about this relationship between Mrs. Hawkins and Willie McGee.”

In her newspaper stories and in A Fine Old Conflict, Mitford attributed the anecdote to the director of the YWCA, who was not named, but who was described as a narrow-minded Southerner. As Mitford told it, she kicked the White Women out of the Y once she realized what they were up to.

Mitford may have taken some literary license with this character: The Y’s director at that time was a Canadian named Jean MacGillivray, who was born on Prince Edward Island, and whose parents were immigrants from Scotland. Mitford’s “Director” uses the word “Nigras” and talks about traveling to Laurel frequently, where old friends told her it was common knowledge that the relationship between McGee and Mrs. Hawkins “had been the talk of the town for years.” This point matters because, for all the door-knocking Mitford did, “the Director” is the only person she found who said anything concrete about the affair.

In the end, the bare-legged women did their job and made a statement, but their overall results symbolized the hopelessness of changing McGee’s fate by knocking on doors. One day, Mitford and company walked into the office of Dr. W. D. Hudgins, pastor of the huge First Baptist Church in downtown Jackson, an important establishment bastion. His response didn’t show up on her tally sheet, but it was memorable all the same. “Hudgins,” Mitford said, “screamed and ranted at us to get out of the state.”

What did it all add up to? Nothing you could easily calibrate, but the grassroots activity came to something. As the FBI file on the McGee case shows, CRC chapters all over the United States and its territories—from Philadelphia to South Bend to Denver to Portland to Honolulu—were meeting about McGee during these months, taking small actions that got people thinking and talking. Nationally, the CRC organized a protest vigil in Washington and extensive speaking tours by Rosalee. In March, April, and May, she appeared in several cities, including New York, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles.

When McGee faced execution in July 1950, one measure of his support was the flood of letters and telegrams sent to Governor Wright. Something similar happened again. On March 15, the day that Supreme Court justice Hugo Black heard stay-of-execution arguments from Abzug, Coe, and Vito Marcantonio, he took the unusual step of publicly berating the American people for sending him so many messages about McGee. He had gotten a five-inch stack of telegrams and letters, and he wanted it understood that he didn’t make decisions based on emotional pleas. “I am not compelled to read these and have not and will not,” he said. “It is a very bad practice. There is no defense for it except ignorance on the part of the people who did it.”

Like Justice Burton, Black kept much of the correspondence, and it’s hard to believe he didn’t read some of it. One letter came from Newton, Mississippi—J. M. Caddell’s old hometown—and it was written by a white out-of-state doctor named Walter D. Jensen, who was there doing federal tuberculosis-eradication work. Dr. Jensen thought McGee was probably guilty and deserved prison time, but not death. He reminded Black that “no white rapist was ever executed in Mississippi” and then walked him through details of a little-reported 1949 case in Houston, Mississippi.

“On the 2nd of July, 1949, a drunken trio, two men and a soldier on leave…drove out of town and on a narrow country road caught up with a negro family in a lumber wagon, a man and wife and four children,” he wrote. “The negro stopped to let the car pass as the road was very narrow…. One of the men got out of the car, and went over and crushed the negro’s head with a bumper jack. All they got for that was a supposedly life sentence. They will be out in three or four years….

“I believe in equal justice for all, but Southern justice is mighty hard to swallow. I am sending this letter via Baltimore, through a nephew, for fear that it might be intercepted. Please do not divulge my name.”

Black’s file also contains newspaper clippings about McGee from the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan. Somebody mailed them as an example of how debate about the case had taken hold at a typical campus, far from Mississippi. The Daily covered McGee, or printed letters about him, more than a dozen times in March, April, and May. A campus-based Ad Hoc Student Committee to Save Willie McGee was created in early March to persuade students to send cards and letters to “Washington and Mississippi officials.” Rosalee spoke in Ann Arbor that month, at an event the Daily described as a “stormy rally.” Typical of the divide on many campuses, young progressives squared off against young Republicans, arguing about the merits of the case and the demerits of McGee’s Communist defenders.

“[Mark] Sandground accuses the people on campus who are sponsoring the movement to stop the execution of Willy McGee of being ‘agitators, rabble-rousers, and plain Communists who are trying to destroy our freedom,’” two students wrote that month. “Why must everyone who believes in sticking up for the underdog be labeled a Communist?”

Unlike Burton, Black didn’t leave behind any notes about his decision-making process, but the result was the same: He decided to stop the wheels of execution and take one more look. He ordered a stay on March 15.

Sullens was furious, calling Black a bad lawyer and worse judge in an editorial titled “Justice Again Ravished.” Mathew Bernato, a private investigator from Philadelphia, wrote Black directly, saying that McGee was “a three time loser on previous appeals to the Supreme Court.” Despite this fact, he said, Black gave in to the very pressure he said he would ignore.

As they had done in 1950, supporters of the stay seemed to think Black’s move was a vote of confidence in McGee. “[T]he Civil Rights Congress claims to have new and most important evidence,” Howard Selsam, a resident of New York, wrote in a letter to Black. “…Is there to be no way in which this evidence can be examined? Are the authorities of Mississippi to be allowed to send McGee to death simply because they want to and do not want to examine any new evidence that might prove his innocence?”

Selsam should have known from high-school civics that the Supreme Court didn’t conduct trials. The same can’t be said of Michael B. Creed, whose handwritten note read, “Mr. Justice Black: Thank you for saving Mr. Willie McGee. I hope he can soon go home to his wife + four children.” Michael was eight and a half.

In 1950 and early 1951, nearly six months passed between Burton’s stay and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear McGee’s appeal. This time, the process took only eleven days. After hearing arguments on March 20, the Court discussed the case in conference, aided by two clerk memos—one leaning toward taking the case, one leaning against. John G. Burnett, William O. Douglas’s clerk, told the justices that “the main question is whether petitioner, through his affidavits, has made out a sufficient case on the charge of knowing use of perjured testimony to warrant a full hearing” by a U.S. District Court. He reviewed the facts and the new evidence: the affidavits from Willie, Rosalee, and Hettie Johnson.

Johnson’s story didn’t sway him. Apparently unaware that Johnson said she fled Laurel after being threatened, he indicated that the defense should have called her when it had the chance. He was more interested in the allegations made by Rosalee and Willie, which, to his mind, were detailed enough to be compelling, but also to raise a question: Why hadn’t the defense found other witnesses to back up their stories?

“The prosecutrix and her husband both testified they had never seen petitioner prior to the alleged rape,” he wrote. “If this was perjury as petitioner claims, it would not seem difficult to establish…. There should be some record to show that petitioner and the husband worked together. Since petitioner has very active counsel, it is difficult to understand the failure to produce such evidence.”

Writing for Chief Justice Vinson, Murray L. Schwartz saw the issues the same way, but the stakes now gave him pause. “One of the difficulties with this case is that it has to deal with highly improbable alternatives,” he wrote. The prosecution’s version of events had convinced three juries, but it bothered Murray that “[t]he husband and two other children” slept through McGee’s break-in and forcible rape.

“On the other hand, it is petitioner’s theory that because he had had intercourse with the prosecutrix on other occasions, she made up this rape story to get even with him,” he wrote. “But it seems most improbable that she would have picked the night and hour she did, without knowing definitely that he would not be able to show an alibi….

“The disposition of the case is not assisted by the many times it has traversed the courts,” he concluded. “Neither is it helped by the facts that the only affidavits on the perjured testimony point are by petitioner and his wife, the most interested parties for his continued living. But this is a capital case, and it would seem that there is merit to petitioner’s argument that he is entitled to a full hearing.”

The Court didn’t agree: On the 26th, it denied certiorari for the fourth time. This didn’t mean that McGee’s supporters were giving up. April would see new court actions, marching in the streets, and a rising level of clamor about McGee that, more and more, began to spread internationally. But the situation was becoming bleaker by the day. Barring a miracle, Willie McGee was going to die.