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


A couple of days after my Laurel trip with Dillard, I went back alone and had a few final conversations. One was with an old African-American man named Gus DeLoach, who in 1951 was living across the street from the Pete Christian funeral home, where McGee’s body was kept before it was taken to Pachuta. DeLoach was an army veteran and longtime Masonite employee who became one of the first blacks put in a management job when the company changed with the times in the late 1960s. He remembered McGee, saying he’d worked at Masonite at some point, though he couldn’t remember when.

“Willie was a hard worker, and he had a wife and children,” he said. “Beyond that, until this happened, he was just a hardworking fellow. Until this came about, I never heard anything irregular about Willie McGee.”

DeLoach listened to the execution on the radio and sat on his porch afterward, watching law enforcement officials and mourners come and go. When things settled down and the funeral home emptied out, he went over for a private look. He smiled when I told him about Evelyn Smith McDowell’s memory that McGee was “burned black.” No, he said, he wasn’t burned black. He was just dead.

“Why did you go look at him? Curiosity?”

“Well, yeah, out of curiosity—and he was right next door to me, and he was a friend. Well, I say a friend. We had worked together. And, usually, black people make visits like that, when one has passed on.”

Thinking of both McGee and of Dillard’s client, Willie Stokes, I asked DeLoach what he thought about while he stood there, and whether he had said a prayer.

“No, I didn’t say a prayer, not specifically for him,” he said. “But for the conditions of our community, I did.”

I also spoke with Jon Swartzfager, the youngest son of Paul Swartzfager. There was another son in town—Paul Jr.—but I’d already talked to him years before and gotten nowhere. Like Bill Deavours, he was cordial and smiling, but he told me his father never said much of anything about the case.

Jon was a different kind of guy. I’d spoken to him on the phone beforehand, and he obviously had some things he wanted to say. On Saturday night in Laurel, after dinner with him and his wife, I followed them back to their house. He and I settled down in the den, and Jon told the story of what his father did on the night of the execution.

According to Jon, his dad was a “softhearted, kindhearted man, and I think it really bothered him to know that he played a role in somebody being put to death.” That night, Swartzfager drank a few beers before heading off to the courthouse, taking along a .38—in case the execution was stayed again and a riot broke out, Jon said—and “a pint of whiskey in a brown sack.” Jon said the whiskey wasn’t for his dad, but for McGee. He said his father didn’t really know whether McGee was guilty or innocent, and it was tormenting him. And so, operating from a mix of mercy and curiosity, he went to see McGee at the jail and let him have a few drinks, both to ease the pain of what was coming and to loosen his tongue.

“It was probably an hour after Willie started in on the bottle,” Jon said, “and he asked him, ‘I just want to know one thing. Did you do it?’ And McGee said, ‘Yessir, I did it, but she was just as guilty as I was.’

“And that crushed my dad,” Jon said. “He apparently believed Willie to the extent that he thought, ‘Here’s a man about to die, what does he have to lose by telling the truth?’ And he’s inebriated. And he says he didn’t rape her but that it was consensual sex.”

According to Jon, his father was never the same, especially around Christmas. “He just couldn’t stand Christmas and couldn’t stand seeing people happy and celebrating and all that, because I think he saw the world as very sad and unfair after that. It was a terrible thing.”

It was a moving story, and I was grateful that Jon trusted me enough to share it. Unfortunately, it was probably apocryphal. As I subsequently found out, Swartzfager had no apparent sympathy for McGee, and he gladly engaged in grand-jury tampering to help put him in the electric chair, just as John Poole had always said he’d done.

I know this thanks to interviews done years ago by a physician in Mississippi named Luke Lampton, a Jackson native who became interested in the McGee case back in the late 1980s, before he entered medical school. As a young man, Lampton was a precocious history buff—he was using the Mississippi State archives regularly by age twelve—and he’d been doing research on a project about J. P. Coleman, the state attorney general during the last years of the case, when he got sidetracked into a brief obsession with McGee. Many of the main characters were still alive then, and Lampton got busy and interviewed several of them, including Bella Abzug, Jessica Mitford, Dixon Pyles, Hettie Johnson, Leroy Jensen, and Paul Swartzfager.

I found him only by luck: He had written a journal article about Ouida Keeton, and we were exchanging e-mails about that when he asked what I was working on. When I told him, he generously offered to let me listen to his tapes, which I did during my final trip to Mississippi in mid-2009. The interviews were excellent—young Luke was persistent and persuasive in a way that ought to be bottled and sold to journalism schools—and his Swartzfager interview was a revelation. It reminded me, as if I needed reminding again, that people’s opinions about the McGee case were inextricably mixed up with what they wanted to be true. Jon, understandably, liked to think his father had acted humanely at a moment of state-sponsored retribution that he had helped bring about.

Maybe he did—I wasn’t there—but it didn’t sound that way when Lampton talked to him. Without prompting, Swartzfager crudely boasted that, yes, there had been grand-jury tampering before trial three. Just as Poole claimed, the state put handpicked black men on the panel to satisfy the U.S. Supreme Court’s Patton mandate, but in a way that wouldn’t affect the outcome.

“The first thing I had to do was to get a damn nigger on my grand jury,” Swartzfager said. “The truth of the whole matter is…we made arrangements…and we had two nigger doctors…. Dr. Barnes we called ‘the clap doctor,’ he treated the niggers for clap, gonorrhea. And he was quite all right, old Barnes was.”

The way it worked was simple: When the grand jury met and listened to testimony in support of a new indictment, the three blacks were instructed to sit in a corner, mind their own business, and shut up until they were told to raise their hands. In the same interview, Swartzfager made it clear that he didn’t know whether McGee had raped Mrs. Hawkins or had consensual sex with her. But it didn’t matter to him. Either way, it was his job to put him away.

Hearing confirmation of the jury tampering made me wonder: Would McGee’s fate have been any different if the Supreme Court had taken his case and reversed it on jury-selection grounds? Not necessarily. Eddie Patton’s “victory” in Patton v. Mississippi didn’t mean he went free. It just meant that he got another trial. He was found guilty a second time and executed in early 1950.

Still, Supreme Court intervention had helped the Scottsboro Boys, and that was McGee’s last, best hope of survival. In the end, there was no getting around the fact that the federal courts had failed McGee, even if he was guilty. With its obvious reluctance to take on what were clearly one-sided trials in Mississippi, the Supreme Court balked at giving McGee the protections guaranteed him by the Constitution. Craig Zaim, in a legal analysis of the case published in the Journal of Mississippi History, put it perfectly when he wrote, “The Supreme Court could not reform the Mississippi criminal justice system in 1951 because of its inability to enforce unpopular decisions and its unwillingness to expand the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. Willie McGee died a casualty of the battle Mississippi waged to maintain its autonomy against federal power.”

At the same time, federal courts of that era proved to be quite efficient at putting Communists in jail for exercising their constitutional rights. After the McGee case ended, William Patterson spent much of his time in legal battles with the U.S. government, ultimately serving two different ninety-day prison sentences in 1954 for contempt convictions that grew out of his refusal to hand over CRC records.

Patterson was never one to stay idle, and while he was in prison he studied the sociology of his fellow inmates and wrote memorable letters to his wife, Louise, and his daughter, MaryLouise, who was a grade-schooler in 1954 and 1955. Describing prison life, he told her to imagine a school with no yard, no place to play, and no good, clean air.

“Maybe I write too seriously for you,” he said. “Now is the time however for you to learn the most serious things of life…. Never forget that you are a little Negro girl. Never forget that black men and women have fought for three hundred (300) years to make this a free country. Never forget that the fathers and mothers of the white children with whom you play now fight together with daddy. No color is bad except that color which shows a lack of sunshine and fresh air.”

By the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement was moving rapidly, spurred by dramatic events that set the tone for the historic changes of the late 1950s and 1960s: Brown v. Board of Education; the murder of Emmett Till; the Montgomery bus boycott and the rise of Martin Luther King Jr.; the integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas; the arrival of the Freedom Riders in several Southern cities, including Jackson; and the 1963 March on Washington and the legislative revolution that later followed.

These events—and the eventual triumph of the NAACP’s core strategy of forcing change by waging constitutional battles in federal courts—made it easy to forget that the Civil Rights Congress had ever existed, which it ceased to do in early 1956, depleted of energy and resources as it fought against attacks from the state of New York and the federal government, both of which accused it of channeling funds to subversive causes.

U.S. Communism also hit rocky times in 1956, when word spread that spring of Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress on February 24 and 25, in which he denounced Stalin for his mind-boggling brutality and abuses of power. Many American Communists abandoned ship, including Howard Fast and Jessica Mitford. By the time Mitford published A Fine Old Conflict in the 1970s, she had repurposed her experiences in a way that sometimes played her discarded ideology for laughs.

As a courtesy to her old boss, Mitford sent Patterson a copy of the book after it came out. He read it, didn’t like it, and wrote Mitford a scolding letter, telling her she should have let him see it in manuscript form so he could have corrected its numerous errors. “It is possible to point to many mistakes that the CPUSA has made,” he wrote. “…But where lies the alternative[?] The class struggle goes through many stages. But would you not agree, Decca, that the struggle must result in the triumph of a socialist world where racism, war and hunger are finally extirpated from human society and mankind achieves freedom not only from nature’s vicissitudes but from exploitation of man by man[?]”

Before these various setbacks, Patterson had a last hurrah in late 1951. For years, the CRC, like the Tuskegee Institute, had collected reports and clippings on lynchings, legal lynchings, and other acts of violence and discrimination against black people. Much of the organization’s work involved litigating such cases, but there was never enough money and manpower to take them all on.

The group’s archiving didn’t go to waste, however. In the early 1950s, Patterson came up with an audacious idea: The CRC would produce a book-length compendium of these incidents, to show America and the world the full extent of the racial oppression that was still all too common. It was published in November 1951 under the title We Charge Genocide, and its lists of killings, beatings, and judicial abuses went on for page after page after page:

MARCH 24, [1949]

—Three houses occupied by Negroes in the North Smithfield district of Birmingham, Alabama, were shattered by dynamite.

APRIL 25, [1950]

—CORNELIUS LARKIN, 27, of Los Angeles, California, mentally deficient, was shot by police who were allegedly investigating an attempted burglary. Larkin was on his way home when police closed in on him. Excited, he ran and was shot.

Of course, some of the items could have used additional fact-checking. The McGee case was summarized as if it had been proven beyond question that he was a war veteran, that the love affair happened, and that the state of Mississippi “ordered his death” to hide the truth of the relationship. And the CRC forgot to mention the embarrassing way it had cried “frame-up” after the December 1950 arrest of Scottsboro Boy Haywood Patterson, who killed a man in a Detroit bar fight and was later sent to prison for it.

Still, it was a powerful document overall, and it contained a great deal of unpleasant truth. In 1948, the United Nations adopted a “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” Using that as his cue, Patterson positioned We Charge Genocide as a vast indictment, saying the United States had committed a “murderous assault” against black citizens. During a speech in Paris to launch the book, he once again compared the American government to Nazi Germany, complete with talk of a U.S. plot for world domination. “It has been demonstrated that the germs of world war are inherent in a racist attack upon the nationals of a country from their own government,” he said. “The proof is the course of the Nazi government of [Hitler’s] Germany…. Thus, this petition is extremely timely for it comes before, not after the deluge.”

As Patterson recalled in The Man Who Cried Genocide, while in Paris he ran into Dr. Channing Tobias, an NAACP board member who was there as an alternate delegate to the U.N. General Assembly. Patterson dismissed Tobias as a Cold War Uncle Tom. “Our rulers had, since the Civil War, needed a Black spokesman to caution Negro workers against the dangers of trade unionism…,” he wrote. “Now [they] needed a Negro like Dr. Tobias to caution Negroes against the dangers of communism.”

Tobias, for his part, thought Patterson was blind, and asked him why his speeches failed to mention the genocidal practices of the Soviet Union. Patterson said there weren’t any.

Among the dignitaries who signed the genocide petition—including such people as W. E. B. DuBois, Louis Burnham, and Paul Robeson—was the familiar name of Rosalee McGee, who stayed loyal to the CRC long after the McGee case ended. Shortly after the execution, the Pittsburgh Courier—a middle-of-the-road black newspaper that was sometimes anti-CRC—published a story in which Josephine Baker reportedly blasted the CRC for using McGee “to swindle thousands of Amercians into furthering its despicable plan to conquer the world.” Rosalee, who was in New Orleans by then, swore out an affidavit in which she said, “I just don’t believe Jo Baker said all those things about the CRC. I am no fool. I know who swindled my husband from me, and who fought to the last minute to save him.”

Rosalee had a difficult time of it in 1951, writing frequently from Lexington, where she took care of her sick mother and picked cotton. “I try my best not to worry,” she said, “but I look [at the kids] and thank about McGee and I can’t help but cry, and the people here make me wont to kill my self telling me we told you they were going to kill Willie. You see it didn’t do any good.

“[But] I no it did good. We lost a life but we didn’t lose the fight and I be glad when I can get away from all of this. If it wasn’t for my poor mother and father I would just walk away. I never get well until I can leave here. I wont so much to be in NY or some where fighting and helping the CRC.”

By 1952, Rosalee was desperate to get out of Mississippi. She told the CRC that she was being persecuted by law enforcement officials in Jackson, who allegedly confiscated her mail and showed up at her home with search warrants for bootleg whiskey. She started doing CRC speaking engagements again, in cities like Chicago and New York, and at some point that year she began working as an employee in the CRC’s New York office. A subsequent report by the federal government’s Subversive Activities Control Board listed her as the head of the National CRC Prisoner’s Relief Department, the same job Lottie Gordon had held. In 1955, she turned up as a witness during a Control Board hearing held at the Foley Square courthouse in New York. She was identified as a resident of Brooklyn. Under oath, she described the McGee case to hostile Justice Department lawyers, falsely claiming to have been in the courtroom during his first and third trials.

I don’t know how long that job lasted, but I do know that Rosalee never looked back once she got out of Mississippi. In 2008 I finally found a living relative of hers—an old man from Lexington named Jesse James Harris, who is her nephew.

During an interview at Harris’s home, an old country place a few miles out of town, he easily identified Rosalee from a picture I showed him, and he cleared up a mystery about her first name. He said Rosalee and Rosetta were both accurate. “We called her Rosalee,” he said. “But most people called her Rosetta.”

He was sure she had two children, and it was his belief that they were adopted, but on that and a few other details he wasn’t really sure. He said she remarried, but he couldn’t remember the names of her new husband or the kids—he thought the husband’s name might have been Lawrence Allen. He was certain she died in the late 1960s, in Brooklyn, and he said he was present at her funeral. He had no idea where the kids ended up or whether they were still alive.

Harris knew Rosalee was involved with some sort of civil rights organization in New York—he even heard she traveled overseas once—but he knew nothing of her involvement in the Willie McGee case. He nodded and smiled when I told him about it, but, to be honest, I don’t think he really believed it was true.

Just as Susan Brownmiller said, Willette Hawkins never wavered from her story that she’d been raped. In August 1951, at the federal court in Foley Square, she went after the Daily Worker by filing a million-dollar libel suit against its parent company, Freedom of the Press Company, Inc., claiming she’d suffered “indescribable mental and emotional agony, injury and…psychological injury” because of the paper’s false and malicious claims.

The suit’s existence isn’t mentioned in any of the books that summarize the McGee case, but Willette persisted with it for years, and the Daily Worker, with help from the CRC, invested considerable resources to search for witnesses who could help prove she’d lied. The Daily Worker’s investigator, Spivak, never found any. The closest he came was during an interview with her pastor, the Reverend Grayson L. Tucker, who said, after prompting, that he believed it was true that McGee had worked in the Hawkinses’ neighborhood and that he knew Troy. But he also said he knew this only because he’d read it in the newspaper. He said he thought McGee committed the crime, calling him “a Negro who I think was just slightly mentally off, especially on the subject of passions.”

Spivak wasn’t the only person looking: CRC activists with the Detroit branch also tried to find several Detroit-area blacks, originally from Mississippi, who were believed to know something, but that quest came up empty. In the spring of 1952, during procedural back-and-forth about where depositions would be taken, defense lawyer David Freedman asked that Mrs. Hawkins be forced to come to New York for pretrial questioning. Only two people in the world could “bear witness” about the affair, he said: Willette and Willie McGee. McGee was dead, leaving her as “the only person who can be looked to for direct evidence on a crucial issue of the case.”

That was a strange argument, considering the old Daily Worker line that everybody in Laurel knew of the affair. Rosalee McGee wasn’t even mentioned. Somebody must have decided that she no longer qualified as an eyewitness to the events.

After long periods of inactivity, the case was settled out of court on May 5, 1955, with the Daily Worker agreeing to pay Mrs. Hawkins $5,000 and publish two retractions, admitting that their allegations against her were not proven. She traveled to New York to finalize the settlement, posing in front of the federal courthouse with her two New York lawyers. On that day, anyway, the years of pain and misery were forgotten: In the picture, she smiled like a newlywed.

McGee’s defense lawyers went on with their lives without hitting much of a bump: Pyles had a long, successful career; Breland migrated into business; and London went back to Hattiesburg and worked the quieter fields of real-estate law.

Bella Abzug became Bella Abzug, one of the best-known New York political figures of the 1960s and 1970s. When Luke Lampton interviewed her, she had nicer things to say about the Mississippi lawyers she’d worked with, including London and Poole. “Both those guys worked very hard,” she said. But the man she admired most was her appeals partner, John Coe. After the case ended, he wrote her to apologize for quitting at the end. In a letter written in June, she more than forgave him.

“I want you to understand that one of the most constructive experiences that came out of the many relationships and facets of the McGee case was my association with you,” she wrote. “You must know that your ability, courage and strength can only be likened to an oasis in a desert. Everything that you are in view of your entire background…stands out as a might[y] example and symbol of truth and honesty at a time when so little of that kind of thing prevails either North or South, West or East. For me as a young person…my contact with you was a rich thing from which I gained much inspiration and courage. As you know, what I lack in eloquence, I make up for in directness, and if my words do not flow smoothly, I think you can feel the heart in them.”

As for John Poole, he did pay a price. His reward for doing his job honestly was disbarment in the state of Mississippi, a process in which, according to Dixon Pyles, Fred Sullens may have had a hand. Before pressing his libel case in Jackson, Poole tried to sue in Delaware, where the Jackson Daily News’s parent company was incorporated. That suit died, Pyles said, because Sullens’s lawyers were able to block it on the grounds of forum non conveniens, that is, the lack of a convenient forum.

“As a result of the threat,” he said, “Fred Sullens hired an investigator and looked into John Poole’s background. John Poole was a very able young lawyer. But they found that some of the funds in a small estate which he was handling…were not accounted for, so he was promptly disbarred. But about a year later we managed to get him reinstated.”

Pyles’s timetable was a little off, but the basics were right. Poole’s practice had collapsed as a direct result of the McGee case—he even lost his home—and it came out that he’d been convicted of assault in a fight that occurred not long before his libel trial in the summer of 1950. Poole also sometimes held on to small amounts of cash that clients had given him to pay fines, probably using the money as a temporary way to pay family expenses. He voluntarily withdrew from practicing law in March 1953, relocating to Texas for a period of rehabilitation, which he described to the Chancery Court of Hinds County when he faced disbarment proceedings the next year.

“There, respondent quit the drinking of intoxicants, worked very hard, attended church regularly, was attentive to his family…and revamped his philosophy of life,” his statement said. He was shown no mercy in the short term: He was disbarred in May 1954.

With help from Pyles and other Jackson lawyers, Poole was reinstated and practicing again by 1956. He had a long career in Jackson after that, building a reputation as a top-notch defense lawyer and earning newspaper coverage a few times as a result of yet another of his competitive skills: chess. Poole was an excellent amateur player, winning city and state titles in the 1960s. In 1965, in the town of Magnolia, he played fifteen boards at once during an exhibition, winning thirteen and tying two.

Unfortunately, Poole had a bad habit he never kicked. He was a pack-a-day smoker and eventually developed lung cancer. On November 13, 1980, weary of the pain and hoping to spare his family needless expense, he wrote a letter to his wife and daughters, telling them he loved them and apologizing for what he was about to do. And with that, Smiling Johnny went out his own way, holding a pistol to his head and sending himself into a long and merciful sleep.