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


I went to Laurel again on Election Day 2007, with a friend I’d made during my visits to Mississippi: a retired judge named W. O. “Chet” Dillard, whom I’d met through Ed King, the civil rights veteran who shared a house with Todd Pyles.

Judge Dillard, who lived in Jackson, was a funny, energetic, old-school gentleman who was generous with his time and knowledge, which was drawn from an amazing stock of life experiences. Born in 1930, he’d grown up in a dirt-poor white family that was driven to the brink by the Depression. In Clearburning, a book he wrote in 1992 that combines his life story with commentary about civil rights episodes from the 1960s, he recalled how, at age three, he and two older brothers were sent off to a Baptist orphanage because his father was broke, his mother was seriously ill, and his parents’ only choice was to give up the smallest children or watch them starve.

Most of the family was back together by 1936, when Dillard’s father relocated to Pachuta—the area where Willie McGee’s people were from—to farm as a sharecropper. Dillard lived there through high school, and his family was so bedraggled that he had to endure regular humiliations in grade school.

“My main memories of this time are of the real discrimination and total rejection of the Dillards,” he wrote, “…. since we were much poorer than anyone else in the community and were continuously harassed, insulted, and abused by adults and other children…. There were occasions when an adult, supposedly a friend of mine, would pull down my pants in public to show that I didn’t have any underwear.”

Dillard made a lot of himself, graduating from Mississippi Southern in 1953, serving as a navy pilot, then earning a law degree from Ole Miss, and later becoming a district attorney in Laurel, the Mississippi commissioner of public safety, an assistant attorney general, and a chancery judge. When he was first setting up in Laurel in 1960, he was assigned to defend a black man named Willie Stokes, who was accused of murdering a white woman who ran a small store, stabbing her with a butcher knife. Dillard said there wasn’t much doubt that Stokes was guilty, so the best he could hope for was to save him from the death penalty. He pleaded for mercy, based on Stokes’s poor, rugged background and lack of education.

It didn’t work. Stokes was executed in 1961 inside a gas chamber at Parchman, the state of Mississippi having retired its electric chair in 1955. For years, Dillard was haunted by a moment toward the end of the trial when Stokes—who was so frightened that he urinated on the floor in the courtroom one day, and who barely spoke to Dillard the entire time—asked him what he thought was going to happen. Dillard told him: No doubt about it, he was going to be found guilty and sentenced to death.

“He thought a long time and finally asked what he could do,” Dillard wrote. “Searching my heart and soul, I told him I didn’t know of anything he could do except pray about it. I was astounded by his answer, which I remember clearly to this day. He said, ‘I don’t know how to pray.’ He continued, ‘I lay in my bunk tossing and turning all night in my cell trying, but no one has ever taught me how to pray, and I just don’t know how to do it or what to say.’”

I met Dillard early in the morning at the Elite Café, a diner in downtown Jackson where he goes most days for breakfast with a group of retired judges, lawyers, and assorted cronies who make up what’s called the Weaver Gore Coffee Club.

Those guys—including Gore himself, a white-haired attorney who is a well-known figure in Jackson legal circles—were in the back of the restaurant, which was long and narrow. I was up front in a green vinyl booth with Dillard, who was dressed in a brown, tweedy jacket, blue shirt, red tie, and a pin that said SALUTE ME I VOTED.

Also present was Dorothy Hawkins, who had come to the city for the day but wouldn’t be going to Laurel. I’d invited her because I thought she’d want to hear Dillard’s opinion about the third McGee trial. Before coming to Mississippi, I’d sent him the transcript, asking him to make notes and tell me what he thought of the evidence.

He thought McGee was clearly guilty. He mailed me seventeen pages of legal-pad notes explaining why, but the short version went like this: He was sufficiently convinced by the circumstantial evidence—and so unconvinced by McGee’s love-affair alibi—that he decided McGee made up the affair to save his neck. One page of notes contained a list called FACTORS CONTRA CONSENSUAL.

1.    Time—5:00 am is out of the question—especially since he had been out all night drinking and gambling.

2.    NO WAY with young child @ 2 yrs old in bed with her, two daughters in adjoining room with husband in the rear bedroom.

3.    All evidence indicates she was having her period and no consensual sex would be arranged at such a time.

4.    If consensual no such vulgar language would have been involved. Also in some location where they would not have been recognized.

5.    If consensual he would have claimed this in an effort to save his life.

6.    He entered and exited through a window; if consentual, would he not have entered through the door?

When I looked at his list, I felt bewilderment, not clarity. The problem is, you can take most of those points and extract opposite conclusions from them. Consider the third one. Suppose Willette and Willie had arranged to meet in her bedroom that night. Now suppose Willette’s period hadn’t started when they’d set up the date, but that it did start just before he arrived. Could that have been why McGee reportedly told her, “You lied to me”?

Though I no longer put any credence in the affair story—I couldn’t get past the huge discrepancies between the two versions McGee delivered—I was still unable to accept that the prosecution presented a case that proved his guilt beyond a doubt. To me, there wasn’t enough evidence, then or now, to be sure either way. But, obviously, I thought it was wrong that he died for the crime of rape, given the unequal sentencing practices of the time. On that score, there was no getting around the terrible unfairness of the sentencing, compared with the 1946 Laverne Yarbrough child-rape case.

Before long, Dorothy had to take off, and Dillard and I had to climb into his car and head south, so we said our good-byes. On the way down, rolling along in his smooth-riding Cadillac through towns like Magee and Collins, I brought up yet another rumor you hear about Mrs. Hawkins: that she made a pass at, and possibly had an affair with, Paul Swartzfager.

Dillard didn’t know anything about that, but he had trouble imagining Mrs. Hawkins engaging in an affair. “This woman only weighed ninety-two pounds,” he said. “You know, a woman that didn’t weigh but ninety-two pounds wouldn’t be very sexually attractive.”

I said that photographs I’d seen made Mrs. Hawkins look almost anorexic. He nodded and said, “I don’t see how a ninety-two-pound woman could hardly have all those babies.”

On Saturday, May 5, 1951, Abzug filed an appeal at the federal district court in Jackson, asking for an injunction against McGee’s execution on the grounds that Mississippi’s conduct amounted to a violation of his federally protected civil rights. Several hours before this, she and Coe had had an early morning meeting with Governor Wright inside his executive offices in the capitol, where they made a final plea for clemency. This meeting was the end of the line for Coe. In a letter to Abzug written before he went to Jackson for the hearing, he told her he had reserved the right to decide when “my duty was done” in the case. Now, he said apologetically, that time had come.

Both appeals were long shots, since Wright and Sidney Mize, the federal judge who would hear Abzug’s plea on Monday, both seemed determined not to allow any more delays. From Abzug’s perspective, it didn’t help that the CRC had decided, once again, to organize a public protest to coincide with her efforts. The CRC didn’t have any choice—it was now or never for such gestures—but Abzug had to spend part of her day dealing with the consequences: the mass arrest of forty-two people, including a large group of out-of-state white women and a smaller group of black male union members from Memphis.

“Without consultation with me…they sent down this delegation of…people, who immediately got arrested,” she recalled. “I was outraged by that, because at that point, who was going to get [McGee] out? I had to…and I had to interrupt what I was doing to call up the attorney general and say these people had a right to petition, they had a right of speech, and you had no right to arrest them.”

During their meeting with Wright and other state officials, Abzug and Coe touched very gingerly on the affair claim—merely alluding to it as “testimony and evidence [that] has never been heard.” Instead they put more emphasis on their lingering doubts about McGee’s confession and the racial bias of Mississippi’s sentencing practices.

“[L]arge numbers of the citizens of the Nation believe that Willie McGee is not deserving of the punishment which hangs over him,” they wrote. “Rightly or wrongly (and we submit rightly) they feel that if he were a white man, he would not be doomed to die.”

Wright met every one of Abzug’s arguments with counterarguments, questioning the very premise of her plea. Was she asking for clemency because McGee was innocent, or because Mississippi’s sentencing for rape seemed unfairly applied?

“We submit that there is some doubt,” she said, “and as long as there is doubt we believe there should be clemency.”

“Why didn’t you take that same line when this case was painted to the world in…lies?” he said. Attorney General J. P. Coleman was aggressive too, asking why the defense had ignored the fact that the Hawkinses were living in another state during some of the years the affair supposedly took place. He also said that Masonite’s payroll records, which he said he’d had examined, contained no evidence that McGee worked there at the same time as Troy Hawkins.

Coe tried a high-minded approach, telling Wright that he should avoid putting himself in the historical position of Pontius Pilate, which was exactly what would happen if he washed his hands and said, “‘The courts did it, not I.’”

“When I make my decision, I’ll assume full responsibility,” Wright assured him brusquely.

During the hearing, Laurel mayor Carroll Gartin read a statement demanding an end to the defense’s stalling tactics and its attacks on Mrs. Hawkins. “As though she has not already endured enough suffering at [McGee’s] bestial hands, his friends now try to cast a stench of dark suspicion about her,” he said. “The filth and foulness of such obscenity is a dastard insult to the name and honor of a Laurel wife and mother who…is fine and noble and pure.”

When Wright announced his decision on Monday, he agreed: There would be no clemency.

At around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, just as this hearing was getting under way, roughly two dozen women gathered at a street corner in front of the capitol, dressed like they were going to play bridge. Jackson police arrived and told them to disperse, but nobody moved. The women’s leader was twenty-six-year-old Anne Braden, the Louisville-based leftist who had insulted Governor Wright by mail in the summer of 1950. Now, addressing a dozen highway patrolmen and police, she announced her group’s intent: “We’re going to the hearing.”

“No you’re not,” said L. C. Hicks, chief of the highway patrol.

“You’ll have to quit gathering…. We’ve had enough trouble with this case, and we’re not going to have any more.”

After about ten minutes, the women were arrested—the charge was conspiracy to obstruct justice—and taken to the city jail. Separately, the cops started rounding up blacks, including a group of “well-dressed Negro men” who were seen standing in front of the Robert E. Lee hotel. In all, there were forty-two arrests of people who weren’t doing anything but assembling.

Local and national newsmen headed to the jail to find out who they were, even though the police weren’t in the mood for a media scrum. Photographers from the Jackson Daily News and Life had their cameras confiscated temporarily, an action Fred Sullens raised hell about. The women were CRC members or sympathizers who had responded to another clarion call, and they had come from all over the United States—New York, New Jersey, Michigan, California, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina, among other places—representing church groups, unions, and progressive organizations like the Bronx Women of Peace and the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs. Local reporters wrote about them as if they represented an exotic new species of female.

“One of the most attractive women of the group identified herself as Miss Elaine Parun,” the Jackson Daily News reported. “…‘I represent the Greenwich Village (New York City) chapter of the Civil Rights Congress,’ she said. She looked ‘Bohemian,’ as the Village folks are commonly expected to look.”

The hubbub continued for a few hours, while the women sang anti–Jim Crow songs and griped about the jail food, which included boiled turnip greens. “I can’t eat that slop,” one woman said. “Can we send out for something?” Abzug and Coe made a deal with officials: The women would plead not guilty and be released, with the understanding that they would leave the state immediately. The men were harassed and threatened, but nothing came of it—all of them left town safely, primarily by train.

The weekend’s other big protest happened a thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C. On Sunday afternoon, McGee picketers, including William Patterson, marched back and forth in front of the White House. At the Lincoln Memorial, a mixed-race group of union members and war veterans—many of them Communists affiliated with the International Fur and Leather Workers Union—gathered for a larger demonstration and protest vigil. Three groups of a dozen or so men—all wearing white T-shirts that said FREE WILLIE MCGEE over their suits—chained themselves in a circle around the huge support columns at the top of the memorial’s steps. “Lincoln freed the slaves,” they chanted. “Truman free McGee.”

The novelist Howard Fast, who was there, watched hundreds of people come by to take in the spectacle. “They stood there, and most of them left as they had come, in a curious silence that was threaded through with wonder and doubt,” he wrote later. “[O]nly one person, a soldier, asked why all this fuss over one life? Then we walked together into the shrine where Lincoln sits and the boy seemed confused and regretful over what he had said. Another visitor answered the young soldier: ‘Sometimes, one life becomes a symbol of a million lives.’”

McGee was taken from the Hinds County jail around 6 p.m. on Saturday, for what was supposed to be his last trip to Laurel, but he didn’t make it all the way. News of Abzug’s civil rights appeal prompted Attorney General Coleman to have him brought back to Hinds County for safekeeping until the matter was resolved.

Details of this aborted trip, reported in Jackson papers, made it obvious that law enforcement officials were worried about a last-minute lynching. The group accompanying McGee was a strong-arm contingent that included Jones County sheriff Steve Brogan; deputies George Oalman, A. R. Tillman, and Tony Parker; and highway patrolmen Bud Gray, Willis Obre, and J. C. Puckett. When they were called back to Hinds, they were in a small town called Raleigh, which was on a roundabout route to Laurel. They were avoiding obvious roads.

That day, reporters and photographers had gotten a quick look at McGee before he was taken away. Clad in the blue shirt of his “pajama suit” and a pair of khaki pants, he responded good-naturedly to sarcasm from Brogan and Oalman. Brogan told McGee he was looking a little thinner than the last time he’d seen him.

“Yessir, I ain’t been eating too good here,” McGee said. “The food just didn’t agree with me.”

“I guess they didn’t feed you like we did the last time we had you in Laurel,” Brogan said. “That meal cost us nearly $4.”

“We know how to feed you down in Laurel,” Oalman said. “You like ’taters and ’possum, don’t you, Willie?” McGee laughed and agreed that he did.

At the same time, McGee served notice that he wasn’t going quietly. Asked if he had any additional statement to make, he said, “I ain’t got anything to say now, but I’ll have plenty to say later on. That is, if you’re there then.”

During these final days, he started writing his last letters. In one dated May 3, he’d written to Rosalee, who was in Detroit, under the wing of its very active CRC branch. His usual optimism was starting to sound like resignation. “I love you with all my heart do believe me darline,” he wrote. “Oh yes honey give my regards to all and remember where ever you be [or] what ever come [or] go I shall always stand by you.”

In a note written on Monday, May 7, he became fatalistic. “Dearest Wife: I no you have done everything there is to do and I apraciate you courage,” he wrote. “Don’t worrie honey take care of the children…. I am going away but don’t give up the fight you have started. I know you want. I am so glad to no I have some one that will stand by the children. Yours truly husband Willie McGee.”

On Monday, while Judge Mize listened to Abzug’s arguments—which lasted from 1 to 7 p.m.—McGee spent a couple of hours with reporters, starting in mid-afternoon, when Life photographer Robert W. Kelly was allowed time to shoot portraits. After that, McGee sat down in a rocking chair in a hallway of the jail, smoking and giving an unfiltered version of what he still said was the truth about Mrs. Hawkins.

The Clarion-Ledger didn’t print McGee’s statement, which he’d prepared with advice from Abzug. The Jackson Daily News did—Sullens’s news sense apparently overrode his distaste for McGee’s comments. The paper later got sued for this by Mrs. Hawkins, in an action that was eventually dropped.

In his statement, McGee reiterated the details of his February affidavit, saying that Mrs. Hawkins had lured him into an affair and then refused to let him out. “Taking my life doesn’t end such things as have been existing, will be existing till the end of the world,” he said. “There is a lot more things that causes me not to get a fair decision about this—solely because I am a Negro; this is a white woman….

“A lot of folks, a lot of men, think they know a woman and don’t. They find it hard to believe that Mrs. Hawkins would just hold on and not let the truth be known.”

Mize threw out the civil rights claim around 7 p.m. Even before he had ruled officially, McGee was en route to Laurel. Brogan took charge of him at 6:30; they were on the road within ten minutes.

“McGee was visibly nervous but his disposition and speech was not affected,” the Clarion-Ledger reported. He’d gotten a telegram from Father Divine, a black evangelist based in New York, and he was quietly singing a hymn to himself called “Farther Along,” which begins, “Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder, why it should be thus, all the day long.”

Quickly, the officers took him down the elevator and into a waiting vehicle. “As the car pulled away,” the story said, “McGee slumped between two officers on the back seat, holding tight to a cardboard box of personal belongings.”

For Dillard and me, the first stop in Jones County was the Laurel Country Club, where we’d arranged to meet William Deavours for lunch. Deavours, who was in his late seventies, was the son of Jack Deavours, the prosecutor who worked with Paul Swartzfager Sr. during the third McGee trial. A friend of Dillard’s was going to be there too—a local businessman who asked that I not use his name, so I’ll call him Warren Tabor.

The club was almost deserted, smelling of cleanser and old wood, and we wandered around randomly until we found the men alone in a side dining room, a silent space with a plush, leaf-print rug. Deavours, a balding, clear-eyed man, was dressed in tan slacks and a blue plaid shirt. Tabor had plenty of hair left, thick limbs, and a cheerful, slightly weary-looking face. He was more of a talker.

It was generous of Deavours to agree to the lunch. I figured he didn’t want to be here; like many people affiliated with the prosecution side, he tended to assume that discussions of McGee couldn’t lead to anything good. Still, I was disappointed when he said he didn’t know much. Deavours was twenty-one and serving in the navy when the execution took place, and he said he hadn’t ever discussed it at length with his father.

“Was your dad hired by somebody to help on the case?” I asked at one point.

“I don’t know how the connection came about,” he said genially.

“Do you remember, at the time, if you were aware of the claim that there had been a love affair between McGee and the woman?”

“I never even heard that.”

“The whole time? Had you heard of it before I mentioned it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Did your father ever talk to you about the case?”

“Sometimes it would come up in the course of a conversation. But as far as discussion of it from start to finish? I don’t think he ever did, not with me.”

I pulled out a picture of the Lincoln Memorial protesters. Deavours said he had no idea the case had caused so much commotion up north, nor did he care. “If they’d done that around here,” he said, “everybody would have had a good laugh over it.”

Dillard threw out a lifeline, recalling where he was the night of the execution—something I’d forgotten to ask him. He was a student at Southern that year, a member of the Pike fraternity, and he was hanging around with some frat brothers who debated whether they should drive up to Laurel and catch the scene at the courthouse.

“Back in those days, you know, it was public,” he said. “But they got to checking, and they said the crowds was such that you couldn’t get close to the courthouse. So we laid up there and…somebody broadcast the whole thing on the radio. So we laid up there and listened to it like a soap opera, you know.”

I was there,” Tabor said suddenly. “What impressed me was that big old generator producing the power that run the electric chair.”

“They had a mobile electric chair, didn’t they?” Deavours said.

“That traveled?”

Tabor didn’t hear him, so he went on: “And I stood over there in the yard of city hall, across the street from the courthouse, listening to that big generator. ’Course, I was more interested in the crowd than anything else, just to see who was there. Some folks I was amazed to see there, and some I expected to be.”

Later, I asked if it was an interesting thing to have witnessed. “I wouldn’t call it that,” he said very seriously. “I was somewhat ashamed of being there. When I grew up, my dad did his best to have me in the right spot, and I would have debated whether or not he thought that was the proper place to spend any time. I was there with a lot of misgivings.

“But it was public property,” he concluded somberly, “and I had every business being there standing if I wanted to.”

The men remembered it right: The execution was broadcast live, and there was a “traveling” electric chair in use. In 1940, the Mississippi legislature changed the way executions were handled. Up until then, prisoners were hanged in the county where they’d been convicted. The new legislation codified the switch to electrocution, maintaining the tradition of holding executions in counties rather than at the state pen at Parchman. To that end, Mississippi commissioned a Memphis company called TriStates Armature & Electrical Works to build a portable chair.

It was used the first time in October 1940, in the south Mississippi town of Lucedale, to execute an African-American man named Willie Mae Bragg, who had been convicted of murder. The Clarion-Ledger ran a picture of Bragg as the current took his life. “At the extreme right are the hands of Executioner Jimmy Thompson at the switch,” read a caption. “Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.”

The old chair, minus some of its straps and hardware, is now on display in the lobby of the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers’ Training Academy, a facility ten miles southeast of Jackson. It’s a surprisingly simple-looking thing with a flat seat bottom, an upright plank on the backrest, and a notched brace where the backs of a prisoner’s calves would fit. What’s left of the skull-piece electrode sits on an armrest, a combination of padding and wire cable shaped into a crude circle.

Tabor wasn’t inside to see the death scene. Like most people, he was outside with a crowd of spectators whose numbers I’ve seen estimated at anywhere from 500 to 1,500. Everybody was white and most were adults, but not all. Some people brought their children, and some kids just pedaled in on their bikes. At least one boy climbed a tree for a better look. Most people stood around, but some thought ahead and brought lawn chairs. Bill Minor, a longtime Southern newsman who covered the execution for the New Orleans Time-Picayune, told me he remembered being struck by the festive mood he saw outside before going in. “There were children present—it was like a circus atmosphere,” he said. “Somebody was selling cold drinks, even.”

The crowd clustered between the courthouse’s south entrance and city hall, which was across a short street called Yates. The jail was east of the courthouse. In those days, the jail’s second floor was connected to the same floor of the courthouse by an enclosed, barred catwalk on the north side of both buildings. When the time came for McGee’s last walk, it involved a trip through the catwalk to the courtroom, where the chair was set up. One reporter referred to it as a “bridge of sighs,” a phrase Lord Byron made famous in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which referenced the enclosed Venetian bridge that connected the Palace of the Doges, where sentences were passed, to the prison where executions took place.

Tabor made a sketch showing me what was where. While he did that, Deavours and Dillard talked about the old jail, which was no longer in use. Deavours recalled that it contained a built-in gallows. “When they built that jail next to the courthouse,” he said, “all the cells were on the second floor, and as you went up the stairs, you looked up overhead—”

“There was a trap door,” Dillard said, nodding.

“Nope,” he said. “Well, yeah. But there was a big ring in the ceiling up there where the rope went.” Deavours once gave a tour of the courthouse to his middle daughter’s Girl Scout troop, which included a quick duck into the jail entrance for a look at the hangman’s loop. At the end of the tour, he asked the kids if they had any questions. A girl raised her hand. “Mr. Deavours,” she said, “did they ever have any big-time criminals here, like Communists?”

Before long, we got back to McGee. Deavours, Tabor, and Dillard all agreed that, despite the criticisms of Mississippi justice, the system had worked well. Tabor said, “When you have men like John Stennis and J. P. Coleman and Burkitt Collins and the others handling the situation—including Paul Swartzfager, for that matter—you know the average citizen felt like they’d handled that thing all right. And they went on with their work. I mean, it just wasn’t something that was daily talk around here.”

“When it was over with, as far as people around here were concerned, it was over,” Deavours said.

Soon the lunch ended, and I got in the car with Dillard. He needed to go by a local bookstore to see about placing a few copies of a new book he’d written, so we took care of that first. The woman who ran the shop perked up when Dillard told her I was researching the McGee case. She said her parents knew the Hawkinses and had taken her to the courthouse on execution night, when she was twelve or so. I asked if she’d ever heard the love-affair story.

“Oh, yeah,” she said quickly. “I mean, I was aware of that as a child. I mean, that that was what they were trying to make it look like.” I told her many people treated the story as fact. She laughed. It wasn’t fact to her.

Dillard and I made the short drive to the courthouse and jail. The catwalk was gone—a renovation years ago joined the structures with a blocky addition. Inside the jail, on the second floor, the old cells were intact, but they and seemingly ever other space were being used to hold records. The place smelled dusty and rusty, and there wasn’t much to see.

We gave up, went back outside, and walked to the courthouse. Inside, a young white woman Dillard knew pulled out the keys and let us into the courtroom, which looked about like what I had expected: dim walls and heavy judicial furniture, darkly stained and varnished. The judge’s bench was against the east wall, with counsel tables and spectator benches lined up in front of it. The old balcony for blacks was gone, and the renovation had wiped out the windows and balcony on the south side, which is where the electric chair’s power lines had come through.

Dillard had told the woman we were in town doing research about McGee, and as we stood there, she started asking questions.

“Who represented him?” she said. We told her about the three trials and the various lawyers.

“Nobody ever did a psychiatric evaluation on him either,” she suddenly declared. I started to tell her about the second trial and N. B. Bond, the psychologist, but she interrupted.

“I still think she took advantage of that,” she said, “she” being Mrs. Hawkins. “I think she was just using him. They were seeing each other, I think, for sure. I think he was innocent. And just got caught. That’s just my opinion.”

“Well, that’s the story that’s widely accepted,” I said noncommittally.

“Because a lot of people knew. I mean, her friends knew, people that knew him knew it was going on. And when he got caught she screamed rape. That’s just what I’ll always believe. And I don’t believe his soul’s at peace, and I believe he still haunts this place. I don’t care what anybody says.”

She wasn’t kidding about the ghost. A custodian told her she saw a shadow one night in a hallway; other people said they heard voices. For this woman, the really spooky thing was the elevator, whose second-floor door was positioned in the hallway just outside the courtroom. It was an old-timey unit, and to get it to work you had to be inside, pushing the buttons yourself. But sometimes, she said, it went up and down by itself, empty.

She believed McGee’s spirit was in there, riding forever because it was restless. “I’ve heard too many stories about somebody’s soul not being at peace,” she said, “based on what happened at the death.”

The Jackson arrests and the Lincoln Memorial vigil were the climax of McGee’s public support, but they weren’t all there was to it. Between the Supreme Court’s final refusal and McGee’s last night, the story transcended the facts of the crime, the trials, the alibis, and the appeals and assumed its final form as an American myth. Carl Rowan got it right when he wrote that McGee went from being a “nobody” to becoming a unique and complicated symbol—part victim, part Communist pawn, part mysterious tangle of disputed realities. Whatever he had or hadn’t done, Rowan said, his name would “live a long time—in the minds and consciences of honest people who feel that, guilty or not, he paid too much.”

As always, the involvement of Communists crept into everything, and to people like Max Lerner, a liberal columnist for the New York Post, this aspect of the case was a deal breaker that prevented it from stirring “the national sense of injustice” in a way that had true mass appeal. The Scottsboro case had it, he wrote, but “the case of Willie McGee…seemed to have become the exclusive property of the Communists.”

All the same, Lerner had sympathy for the man. “Willie McGee is—or was—a human being,” he wrote. “We would be wrong to erase him from our conscience only because the Daily Worker has written his name on every Communist banner. The Russian police-state has its own Willie McGees, millions of them, which is what makes the weeping of the American Communists such a mockery. But America cannot afford to judge the just and unjust by political tags.”

Whether McGee’s story became as measurably “big” as Scottsboro, there’s no denying that it stirred people, and Lerner was wrong that it only captivated the far left. When you look at the acts of ordinary citizens who said and did something in those last weeks—through petitions, letters, poems, speeches, rallies, campus debates, and other tools of dissent—it’s obvious that the CRC continued to get through to Americans who had no interest in the Communist agenda.

All over the United States—in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, Washington, New York, and other cities—union members, Communists, progressives, liberal Democrats, students, and church groups marched and organized petition-and letter-writing drives. Some of these acts made headlines; some were barely noticed. In a way, the little gestures were more noteworthy than statements by people like Einstein, Faulkner, and Norman Mailer, because they came from anonymous people who had caught the fever of the moment and were acting from their hearts.

In Oakland one day, a team of signature-gatherers was stationed in front of a Sears store when several clerks rushed out, saying, “Let me sign this thing!” After listening to a talk in Los Angeles by Juanita McGee—Willie McGee’s California-based sister-in-law—a man named Irving Oppenheim grew so angry that he dialed the governor’s mansion in Jackson and somehow got Fielding Wright on the line. He lit into him about sending an innocent man to his death on a phony rape charge.

“Where’d you get your information?” Wright asked.

“From the Civil Rights Congress.”

“It’s a pack of lies,” Wright said. He and Oppenheim traded insults until Wright told him to “go to the devil” and hung up.

A 500-person Times Square rally on April 1 was broken up by mounted police; six people were arrested, including a man named Harvey Bellet, who was charged with trying to kick a patrolman’s horse. That same day, Rosalee McGee spoke at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, vowing, “I’m going to keep fighting till my blood runs like water.” She kept busy throughout the final months, appearing in several cities, including Detroit, Denver, Memphis, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago. Her Detroit appearance in March was typical of the stops she made. Anne Shore, a CRC member there, told Patterson that she drew “[c]lose to 1,000 people, a wonderful program and a real demonstration of Negro white unity.”

Unions kept things stirred up all through April, organizing events from New York to San Francisco. One of the largest marches happened on April 29 in Chicago, when thousands of CIO-affiliated packinghouse workers turned out for McGee. One was a man named John Polk Allen, a twenty-one-year-old union meatpacker who would become famous himself in the 1990s, when he was the driving force behind the controversial science experiment known as Biosphere 2. Recalling the march nearly fifty years later, Allen teared up as he tried to convey why Willie McGee had such resonance. “It was so outrageous and so different from the Martinsville Seven,” he said. “It was one individual, and you could look at his photograph…and you knew that a great wrong was being committed.”

On April 30, in Phoenix, Vice President Alben Barkley encountered a picket line as he arrived at the local Jackson-Jefferson Day dinner. He ignored everybody there—including a mother and her eight-year-old son who had traveled 115 miles from Tucson to hold up signs.

Of course, not everybody was swept up. One of the ironies of McGee’s final weeks was that mainstream African-American newspapers, by and large, turned their backs on him because of the Communist involvement, even after the NAACP relented ever so slightly about McGee in the spring of 1951. In March, Walter White urged chapter members to write or wire Governor Wright and ask for clemency, though they were told to keep in mind that the NAACP was in no sense working with the CRC.

Overall, papers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier treated McGee like somebody else’s news. The Defender didn’t write about the execution at all until two weeks after it happened, when it published an editorial blasting both “the Communists and white supremacists” for “making a mockery out of democratic concepts which undergird our republic.”

These papers’ silence was countered by steady mainstream attention—in the TimesLife, and so forth—along with wall-to-wall coverage in papers like the Daily WorkerNew York CompassDaily People’s World, and the Paul Robeson–affiliated publication Freedom, which ran a mid-April extra devoted to the case. Under a banner headline that read, YOU CAN SAVE MY DADDY! the front page featured a sketch of black children holding signs that said, “Pappa was electrocuted for ‘rape’” and “Don’t lynch our father.”

The feedback from outside the United States was also impressive.

Cables came in from Mexico City (Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and others wrote Truman, calling the sentence “monstrous”), the Soviet Union (Dimitri Shostakovich, Anton Chekhov’s widow, and others, who informed the supreme court of Mississippi that “mankind shall not forgive those guilty of this terrible infamy”), Ireland, England, and France. In early April, the Daily People’s World ran a photo of protesters in front of a London movie theater, holding up signs that said, WILLIE MCGEE MUST NOT DIE! Later that month, Mississippi lieutenant governor Sam Lumpkin complained about having to deal with pro-McGee letters and telegrams when Governor Wright was out of the state. “They must have an effective underground to keep up with what’s going on,” he said, mentioning one letter that came from “30 residents, 19 Cornwall Ardens, London.”

President Truman, like every major official who got near the case, received thousands of letters and telegrams, which his staff summarized for him in long daily lists of names and organizations that often began, “The following writers ask for clemency for Willie McGee.” On May 2, he was sent an “open letter” signed by ninety-one prominent people, including Uta Hagen, Oscar Hammerstein, Garson Kanin, Norman Mailer, Wallace Stegner, and Sam Wanamaker. May 8 was Truman’s birthday, and somebody had cards printed up to remind him of this, which said, “Save this Man, Willie McGee, Mr. President, for a Happier Birthday for You and a Happier America for all.”

Frequently, the letters had to be translated, because they were from Europe or Asia. The State Department forwarded this one:

KONING, Miss Annemarie
Voorstraat 27
Delft, The Netherlands

Letter to the President, dated 2/18/51, written in Dutch.

Translator’s Summary of Communication

The writer, a nine-year-old girl, thinks it terrible that the President wants to kill Willy McGee, and she asks that he be released at once. He didn’t do anything, and anyone who says he did is lying.

Another was sent by “114 members of the Free German Youth of the District Youth School of Königstein,” who demanded that Truman stop and study the facts in “the coming execution of the young American Negro Willie McGhee of Mississippi, who is to be killed this month. He could never have committed the crime he is accused of, since he was proved to have been 45 kilometers away from the scene of the crime when it was committed.”

Interest remained especially high in France, where left-wing and Communist papers like Combat and L’Humanité kept the case in the news every day, and where the execution was front-page fare all over the country. “[T]he scope of the sentiment against racism is indicated by the kinds of letters and protests in response to Combat’s appeal,” a Daily Worker correspondent reported from Paris. “One comes from the secretary general of an independent union of editorial workers; another from 96 students of the young women’s junior college in Paris; a third from a group of artists; a fourth from a dozen people in a hospital of the Paris suburb of Garches.”

Everybody knew that China and the Soviet Union were tuned in—periodically, Chinese officials sent telegrams or issued statements berating Truman or Wright. On the night of the execution, shortwave-radio operators in Europe and the United States picked up broadcasts from Moscow that blasted the American government for letting McGee die. “The Moscow announcers read the same piece of script at least once an hour from early evening up to 10 or later,” the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. “Coupled with the pleas for McGee were bald statements that 15,000,000 Negroes in the United States are now living under a reign of terror because they have…taken the lead in supporting the peace aims of USSR and the ‘great Stalin.’”

McGee didn’t arrive in Laurel until shortly after 10:00. The drive shouldn’t have lasted that long, but his escorts once again took a roundabout route. They would have been wary of going all the way until they knew the execution wouldn’t be halted again. There were still legal appeals in play.

After Mize’s decision, Abzug’s colleague Mary Metlay Kaufman—a New York–based lawyer who had worked on the U.S. prosecution team at Nuremberg—asked a federal judge in New Orleans to grant a restraining order until, at their behest, he had reviewed the arguments they’d presented to Mize. He refused. In Washington, Vito Marcantonio placed a call to Presidential Assistant David K. Niles, asking him to persuade Truman to intervene, based on a lengthy clemency plea Abzug had submitted that day—written by her, but styled as if McGee were addressing the president directly. The document called on Truman to live up to the spirit of his 1947 Lincoln Memorial address, recognizing that a Southern court was incapable of giving McGee fair treatment in a case like this. McGee insisted that fear of mob violence had prevented him, for years, from telling the real story.

To charge as I did under oath, that there was actually no rape and that the prosecution knew it, that the complainant’s story was not the truth…that far from never having seen me in her life, as she testified, we knew each other intimately over a number of years, would have been beyond the power of someone like myself, imprisoned, terrorized by my jailers, and constantly under fear of lynching. My lawyers took the same attitude, making it plain that to interpose such a defense…would be out of the question in Mississippi, and they could not see their way clear to present it in open court.

Marcantonio was told that afternoon that the president wouldn’t step in, so the final pleas were aimed at the U.S. Supreme Court. Starting at 6:30, Marcantonio, along with lawyers James T. Wright and Ralph Powe, appealed in turn to William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Chief Justice Fred Vinson. At 10:25 p.m., Vinson announced that he wouldn’t take action, and that was that. There were no more legal options.

In Laurel, the crowd had reached capacity by 10 p.m. The Leader-Call, which published the highest estimate, thought there were as many as 1,500 people on the scene. The west side of the building, on Fifth Avenue, was jammed with parked cars. The courtroom, where the electric chair was set up in late afternoon by state engineer John Laird and executioner C. W. Watson, was off limits to everyone but roughly five dozen officials, spectators, and reporters—all male—who would be allowed to witness the electrocution. Troy Hawkins arrived at around 11:00 and took a seat four rows back in the benches, accompanied by Mrs. Hawkins’s brother and two of her brothers-in-law. Mrs. Hawkins and her children were probably out of town, but that’s unclear. She had been in Jackson that day for the federal court hearing, but she didn’t return to Laurel. According to her daughters, the four of them stayed with a family friend in Birmingham that night.

Neither Rosalee McGee nor Bella Abzug was in Laurel. Rosalee was still in Detroit. Abzug stayed in Jackson with Ernest Goodman, a colleague from the Detroit CRC who had flown in to take the place of John Coe. According to Goodman, who talked about his brief involvement in the case in an oral-history interview, as midnight approached he and Abzug walked together from their hotel to the governor’s mansion, having arranged to speak with Wright one last time.

“We went in the side way,” he said, “and there we were met by a uniformed butler, black man, of course. We were escorted into the living room, and there in one part of it was a card table. And two couples were sitting there playing bridge. One of them was the governor and his wife and the other was the Attorney General and his wife. And they were waiting for us.”

Abzug made her plea, but, inevitably, Wright said no. “Did you ever make an argument to a metal statue of a human being?” Goodman said. “One, however, who was a Mississippi governor, and gracious, lovely, pleasant, and polite? That’s what it was like.”

One of the photographs from that night shows a portion of the crowd outside the courthouse, looking up in unison. There is no indication of when the picture was taken, but it had to have been before the execution, since the faces still looked expectant. There were smiles and grins all around. More men than women were there—by about 7 to 1—and the men were dressed the way they would for a Saturday night, not a Sunday morning: casual shirts, sports jackets, caps, and hats.

From where these people stood, they wouldn’t have been able to see into the courtroom. They were just looking for signs that something was happening, and for that the south side was the best place to be. From there they could see the generator truck, which was parked on a driveway between the jail and courthouse, the second-floor catwalk, and the balcony and south-facing windows.

The old newspaper stories don’t agree on how McGee was transferred from the highway patrol vehicle to the jailhouse, but it appears that the authorities used a decoy. Wayne Valentine Jr.—the son of onetime Police Chief Wayne Valentine, who was nineteen at the time and who later became a highway patrolman—told me that lawmen dressed him up like a prisoner, drove to the Yates Street jail entrance, and hustled him inside. If that’s true, it fooled Bill Minor’s colleague on the Times-Picayune, Robert Peters, who reported that the vehicle holding McGee stopped in front of the jail and unloaded him there.

I think the Laurel Leader-Call probably had it right. Its lead story said McGee was “hurried through the north door of the courthouse” by a group that included Brogan, Tillman, Oalman, and Jack Anderson. They hustled him up the stairs, through the courtroom and past the electric chair, and through the catwalk and into his cell. He would remain there for nearly two hours, talking to a preacher, smoking a cigar, writing last letters to his mother and Rosalee, and getting his hair clipped. With McGee locked in, an officer informed the south-side crowd that everything would now move forward as planned, so they should settle down and behave. “We have waited a long time for this,” he said. “You have been patient. We want no demonstration. Let’s everybody be nice.”

The radio broadcast originated from Hattiesburg station WFOR, which sent over a crew with a portable transmitter powered by a car battery. The on-air voices were Granville Walters, the station manager and a Mississippian, and Jack Dix, a newsman originally from Minnesota. At around a quarter to twelve, Dix started setting the scene.

“I’m sure that you have heard over both radio stations, WFOR and WAML, that all channels open to Willie McGee to save his life have now been exhausted, and the execution is to take place here this evening,” he said. “As far as the crowd is concerned, I think the only thing we can say is that there are many, many people here, milling around the courthouse. Naturally, many rumors have gone around. The Life photographer is now climbing up on top of the truck. There are two of them here tonight, and one of them is now climbing up on this big, silver-bodied truck. He’s set his camera up there. And now he is following his camera up here, and that’s where he is going to sit.”

Looking for signs, they paid close attention to three things: the catwalk, various men whom they could see moving around near second-floor windows, and the truck itself. “There’s no activity around the truck yet,” Dix said. “Naturally, when we hear the motors of the generator of this truck kick off, you’ll know that the electrocution is very near indeed.” He said that the catwalk, with its “bars and grill-work…looks for all the world like one of the entranceways that a circus uses to get lions from…their cages into the arena.”

Walters took a turn, noting that light and shadows coming through the barred windows of the jail were casting huge images on the east side of the courthouse. “And it certainly presents a very eerie appearance,” he said, “when you look over the two-story wall there with the jail bars, the window bars, outlined clearly all up and down the courthouse wall.” He also touched on the intense interest in the case (“This event tonight has really, as you well know, created nationwide attention”); his glimpses of people he couldn’t identify (“There has also been some gentleman up there, a reporter probably, possibly an A.P. or U.P. man, who has been very busy at the telephone….”); and the whereabouts of McGee.

“Time is rapidly running out for Willie McGee,” he said. “And down here, right below us, they are opening the truck, getting it all set, ready to turn it on, so that the juice will be funneled up through these cables that are running from the truck to the chair, and will of course provide the power that will give Willie McGee the execution.”

At this point, for the first time, you can hear the generator, which comes through as a steady thrum of white noise. “Those of you who are listening, I could hear the motor of the truck,” Dix said. “…Let’s put our microphone over the rail just a moment and see if you can pick that up. Jim, if you’re listening, you might jack our gain up a little bit.”

As news accounts of that night make clear, McGee died with dignity, though the Jackson Daily News was stingy with its wording, saying McGee walked to his death “[a]lmost bravely, almost defiantly.” At around 11:30, a local black barber, Alex Spencer, showed up to cut his hair and shave his head at the base of the skull. McGee gave 55 cents to Reverend T. W. Patterson, a black Laurel preacher who stayed with him to the end, and left $7.25 for his mother. He smoked while the barber worked, and at one point announced, “I got all my business fixed. I’m not worried at all. Willie is ready to go.”

They took him over just after midnight, with Patterson reading the Twenty-third Psalm before they left the cell. Outside, Dix had just marked the time—“It’s now straight up of twelve o’clock”—when, after about forty-five seconds, he saw a moving mass of people. “I believe that is McGee going in now, there can be no doubt of that,” he said. “Because there was a party of perhaps—oh, shucks, there must have been at least a dozen people that passed through that passageway, and they’re still going. The county attorney has left the window, the man is still at the telephone, no lights at all on that party as they came through there. So we assume now that it will be just a moment until his execution takes place.”

The final preparations went fast. The Leader-Call said McGee “took his death seat without being urged or aided and remained calm as attendants fastened leather straps around his abdomen, ankles, and wrists.” He didn’t make any last-second statements and apparently said only one thing: “Is the Reverend Patterson here?” He was, but McGee couldn’t see him while the men strapped him in. “McGee appeared interested in the fastening of the large leather straps to his body, wrists, and ankles,” the story said. “His wide eyes flashed several times as he watched the officers go about their grim business.”

He was wearing a short-sleeved green shirt, blue trousers, yellow socks, and bedroom slippers. Attendants removed the slippers and placed them on the floor as they adjusted the leg straps. Then, the Leader-Call reported, the executioner put a “metal skull-shaped electrode to McGee’s head and strapped a wide leather band across his face, covering the eyes, but leaving openings for his nose and mouth.”

The first shock, 2,500 volts, was applied at 12:05, only three minutes after McGee was brought in. His hands formed fists as the charge went through him for half a minute. The executioner applied a second jolt, but McGee was probably gone by then. “Twice, yeah,” Bill Minor recalled. “And I just have a vague memory that you could smell the odor of scorched flesh, of burnt flesh, in that courtroom.”

Two local physicians checked McGee’s chest and pronounced him dead at 12:10. He was left there for another fifteen minutes before he was put on a gurney, covered, taken downstairs and through the crowd outside, and placed in a hearse that took him to the funeral home of Pete Christian. “Hundreds lined the sidewalk leading to the south door of the courthouse, as McGee’s body, covered with a white sheet, was rolled to a waiting hearse,” the Leader-Call said. The hearse rolled away, and that was the end. With nothing left to see, the crowd dispersed within minutes.

In Jackson, Abzug said she got the news from a caller at the courthouse who held up a phone, allowing her to hear what she called “the blood-curdling cries” of the spectators. “And then…I cried too,” she said. “I cried at the notion of the human degradation that could kill a man because of his color, because that’s what it was.”

Goodman was with her, at a pay phone, and he remembered it the same way. “[W]e had arranged to call a newspaper reporter there…. And just as we got him on the phone, we heard the rebel yell, the rebel yell of victory, just so loud we couldn’t hear him talking. They had just turned the switch. They’d won another battle…. We left immediately.”

After that, everything else was reaction: Fred Sullens gloating, Paul Robeson predicting the decline and fall of the Western world. Two of the more eloquent statements came from Josephine Baker and McGee himself, whose last letter was cleaned up grammatically by a CRC editor and then sent off to newspapers.

Baker was performing that week at the Fox Theater in Detroit. She paid for Rosalee McGee’s plane ticket back to the South—she went to New Orleans—and she also wired money for McGee’s burial expenses. Prior to one of her performances, she took a minute to talk to the audience about McGee.

“Today is a tragic one for all American negroes and darker peoples of the world,” she said. “The execution of William McGee does not stop with just the death of McGee. It means a part of every American negro died a little with him.”

Two weeks later, when Life published its story on the case, it had two compelling photographic portraits to choose from. In one, McGee was hanging his head, looking thoroughly defeated. In the other, he was staring straight into the camera, showing a face that was calm, self-assured, even defiant. Life ran the first picture, but the second one was more in tune with the spirit of McGee’s final letter.

“Dear Rosalee,” he said. “They are planning here to kill me and I dont no if you and the people will be able to save me. if I have to die I want you to say goodbye to my mother and the children and all the people who no it is wrong to kill a man because of his color.

“You no I am innocent. tell the people again and again I never did commit this crime. tell them that the real reason they are going to take my life is to Keep the Negro down in the south. they cant do this if you and the children keep on fighting. never forget to tell them why they killed their Daddy.

“I no you won’t fail me,” he concluded, “tell the people to Keep on fighting.”