The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
3. TAKE YOUR CHOICE
The irregularities of McGee’s first trial made it ripe for appeal, and the job fell to a white Mississippi lawyer named Forrest B. Jackson. At first glance, Jackson might seem like a strange pick, since he also did frequent legal work for Mississippi’s most powerful and flamboyant racist, Senator Theodore G. Bilbo. But he had a reputation for fairness in dealing with black criminal defendants, and it extended outside the state.
Jackson, forty-five, was a friendly looking, slightly jug-eared former farm boy from southwest Mississippi whose father had died before he was ten. In a biography he distributed when he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1947, he prided himself on a hardworking childhood (“newspaper carrier, laundry worker, railroad laborer and clerk…salesman, Page in Mississippi Legislature…”) that was capped by his graduation from the University of Mississippi in 1923.
By the early 1940s, Jackson had built up a general law practice in the capital city, occasionally doing work for the NAACP. In a 1943 letter from Carsie A. Hall, president of the group’s Jackson branch, to the national office in New York, Hall mentioned him in connection with two trials, one involving three blacks who were charged with murdering an elderly white man in the town of Madison. “In this case Mr. Jackson has had no financial help,” Hall wrote, “yet he has spent his [own] money in getting the case appealed and he promises to go through with the case because he feels that the youths were not given a chance.”
Starting in 1944, Jackson represented Willie Carter, an accused murderer whose appeal was paid for by the NAACP. Though the effort failed—Carter was retried, found guilty a second time, and electrocuted in 1946—Thurgood Marshall, who worked with Jackson during this process, said he did “a splendid job.”
On the heels of McGee’s guilty verdict, Jackson was approached by Louis E. Burnham, a thirty-year-old African American from New York who had moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1941, where he served as organizational secretary for a civil rights group called the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Roughly ten days after McGee’s conviction, Burnham went to Mississippi on a fact-finding mission, interviewing the principal players in Laurel. He summarized what he learned in a December 26 report to George Marshall, head of the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties, a New York–based group that would be folded into the mix when the Civil Rights Congress launched in the summer of 1946. His memo was detailed and accurate—in fact, it was one of the most reliable things ever written about the case—and it opened with special praise for Jackson, who struck Burnham as “an unusually fair-minded and dependable man.”
In addition to taking on the appeal, Jackson agreed to help Bessie McGee recover money she’d paid to Earle Wingo, the man who had successfully defended the accused lynchers of Howard Wash. Willie was aware of Wingo’s reputation for winning cases; according to Bessie’s first-trial testimony, he’d asked her to hire him for the defense—which, if true, indicates that his mind was working all right before the trial started.
Wingo said no, but he told Bessie he would write the appeal if she paid him $1,000, half of it up front. (In 2008 dollars, $1,000 would be more than $11,000. Jackson charged $100 for the same service.) She somehow scraped together $205 and gave it to Wingo, who then made himself difficult to find. “Obviously, he was taking advantage of Mrs. McGee’s extremity and seeking to milk her for all she could beg or borrow,” Burnham concluded.
In his memo, Burnham discussed both of McGee’s lawyers, Boyd and Koch, sizing them up as precisely the wrong men for the job. “Koch played no role whatsoever in the trial,” he wrote. “Boyd went through the motions of defending his client. However, Boyd has no competence as a criminal lawyer, by his own admission to me. In addition, he does little practice of any kind, most of his time being spent in managing the Southern Hotel which he owns.”
Bessie sketched out McGee’s basic biography, telling Burnham that he was separated from his wife and four children, none of whom was named. He said McGee lived with Bessie at 105 Elm Street, in a “dilapidated two-room shack with outdoor toilet situated in a slum neighborhood. McGee’s earnings were the main support of his mother; some part of them were contributed for the upkeep of his children. Mrs. McGee (Bessie) helped by taking in washing.” Bessie’s house (which no longer exists) stood in a poor part of town known as the Neck, just east of the railroad tracks that bisected Laurel, and near another rough area named in the first trial, the K.C. Bottom.
Burnham also mentioned that, a few days after McGee’s indictment, Forrest Jackson—at the request of the NAACP office in Mobile, Alabama—tried to see McGee in the Hinds County jail but was turned away. Burnham tried to get in two days before Christmas but was also refused.
“These facts are important in light of Mrs. McGee’s description of her son’s behavior during her visits,” Burnham wrote. “The first time she saw him in jail was a few days after the indictment. At that visit she asked him if he was guilty. He said no. She then asked why he had signed a confession. McGee replied, ‘I signed to be living when you got here. You just don’t know what it was like.’” McGee said the confession had been written for him by his captors and that “they told me to sign or else,” thus contradicting the prosecution’s claim that he confessed voluntarily.
Willie didn’t say a word during Bessie’s subsequent visits. Burnham assumed this was explained by the “terrific beating and intimidation to which he has been subjected or…his state of sanity, or both.” Bessie, he said, spoke of “a strong possibility” that McGee had lost his mind. She talked about an aunt and two great-aunts who were “insane at death” and an uncle on Willie’s father’s side, Governor McGee, who “was recently confined in a mental ward at Tuskegee Veterans Facility.”
Burnham closed by ticking off some of the case’s oddities—“Why didn’t the woman cry out…?”—and noting possible grounds for review, including the issues of venue and race-based jury exclusion. Jackson got right to work: On December 28, 1945, he served notice of his intent to appeal. That action, filed in early January, automatically stayed the January 7 execution.
Maybe it’s not a surprise that Jackson provided honest service to his client; that’s what lawyers are supposed to do, after all. Still, the contrast between McGee and Jackson’s other client couldn’t have been greater. By the mid-1940s, Senator Bilbo was more than just another segregationist politician. He was the gold standard of the breed, and his last name, slightly tweaked, had become a nationally recognized label for racism and demagoguery: “Bilboism.” In a 1946 story published in Life, Senator Robert Taft, a powerful Republican conservative, called Bilbo “a disgrace to the Senate.” Bilbo countered that Life was a “pink colored mongrel magazine.”
Though Bilbo played no direct role in the McGee case—he died before it took off as a national news story—Jackson’s involvement wasn’t the only connection. The opening months of the case overlapped with Bilbo’s final months as America’s least-loved senator. The CRC was well positioned to work on McGee’s appeal that summer and fall because, thanks to Bilbo, the group was already focused on Mississippi: Its first national project was a campaign to deny Bilbo his Senate seat after the election of 1946.
By that point, Bilbo—who brayed as loudly as radio’s Senator Claghorn and immodestly called himself “the Man”—was a fat target, a walking caricature who was routinely trashed by everyone from newspaper editors to folk singers to filmmakers. He was denounced for his racism in the 1946 song “Listen, Mr. Bilbo” and cited by name as an anti-Semite in the 1947 movie Gentleman’s Agreement. He was the partial inspiration for a mixed-race college football game played in the mid-1940s at the Polo Grounds in New York, pitting black teams like the Tuskegee Warhawks against the U.S. Navy’s all-white New London Undersea Raiders. In a preview of the 1946 contest, the Daily Worker promised “a nice afternoon watching the Bilbo white-supremacy myth get booted all over the lot.”
That year, Bilbo was called “America’s most notorious merchant of hatred” by the Saturday Evening Post, which published a summertime profile about his primary campaign. “The 68-year-old senator…who has become so widely known as a fountainhead of intolerance, is a little man who attempts to offset his undistinguished appearance with a red necktie and diamond stickpin,” the Post’s Milton Lehman wrote. “…His big head, set with squinty blue eyes and thin lips, is scarred by a blow from a pistol butt….
“Like his personal appearance, Bilbo’s political record is also undistinguished. During the New Deal he tied himself to the Administration, originating nothing, but taking credit at home for every piece of favorable legislation.”
The Post neglected to mention that Bilbo’s long career had seen a few finer moments. Was he a racist? Down to the marrow. But as his most thorough biographer, Chester M. Morgan, points out, Mississippi voters originally responded to Bilbo not because of race-baiting, but because he promised, and sometimes delivered, progressive reforms that were a bright spot in state politics during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
On a gut level, Bilbo’s supporters also loved him because he was colorful and bombastic, in an era when politicians had to show their stuff in front of live crowds in small-town settings. “With incantation from the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare, he held his audience spellbound,” wrote his first biographer, A. Wigfall Green. “Perched high on the porch or on the balcony of a courthouse…he seemed not five feet two in height but a giant: ‘On the stump,’ said one of his disciples, ‘he’s 7 feet 10 inches tall.’”
Sometimes he was legitimately funny, in ways that did no harm and showed an inventive mind at work. As a young state senator in 1910, Bilbo decided to attract attention to himself with a mock legislative attack against a certain popular, stimulating soft drink and its many imitators. So he introduced a bill banning “the manufacture, sale, barter, or giving away of…coca cola, afri cola, ala cola, caffi cola, carre cola, celery cola,” and thirty other imaginary variations, including “mellow nip,” “revive ola,” and “french wine of coca wise ola.” He was so proud of his joke that he introduced the bill three times.
At his worst, Bilbo used the same verbal talents to attack and defame, and his mouth almost got him killed the next year. Some of the scars on his head came from a 1911 pistol-whipping he suffered after calling one political opponent, a former Mississippi prison warden named John J. Henry, “a cross between a hyena and a mongrel, begotten in a nigger graveyard at midnight, suckled by a sow and educated by a fool.”
This was the Bilbo that so many people came to hate, the snapping-turtle loudmouth who would say anything for a laugh, a gasp, or a vote. By 1946, unfortunately, this was the only Bilbo left. And in the context of the McGee case, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: Though Bilbo had plenty of opposition inside Mississippi, he was still one of the most popular elected officials in the state.
Born in 1877, the Man came from southern Mississippi’s Pearl River County, a backwoods area far from the state’s traditional power centers. His rise was made possible by changes in Mississippi election law in the early 1900s that opened the Democratic Party nominating process—previously controlled by a convention of wealthy planters and their allies—to white primary voters of all economic levels. Poor white farmers, called rednecks and peckerwoods by their political betters in the Delta, were soon able to hoist a few champions, including Bilbo’s leather-lunged predecessor, James K. Vardaman. After serving in the state senate and as lieutenant governor starting in 1912, Bilbo ran a gubernatorial primary campaign in 1915 that promised a host of progressive changes in how Mississippi was managed, and he followed through when he won.
“The governor early established good relationships with most law-makers and then implored, prodded, cajoled, and pressured them into passing a legislative program that remains unsurpassed by any four-year period in modern Mississippi history,” Morgan wrote. “Under Bilbo’s whip hand the legislature gave Mississippi a board of bank examiners, a highway commission, a pardoning board, a tuberculosis hospital…a tougher antilobby law…and the largest appropriation ever for education.” Bilbo’s second gubernatorial term—from 1928 to 1932—was a bust, weighed down by his futile campaign to move the University of Mississippi from Oxford to Jackson. But when he won his first of three Senate terms in 1934, he found fresh life as a New Deal loyalist, supporting FDR almost in lockstep throughout his first four years.
Because of this record, Morgan labeled Bilbo a “redneck liberal,” using “liberal” in the sense that he supported an active, progressive federal government. No other meaning could reasonably apply. Bilbo didn’t always play the race card on the stump—for much of his political career, Mississippi blacks were so marginalized that there wasn’t much need to bring them up—but when you look at his actions and speeches in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, there’s no doubt where he was coming from.
In 1928, in support of Al Smith’s presidential bid, Bilbo reportedly spread a rumor that Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, during a flood-relief trip to the Delta the year before, had flouted Mississippi conventions by dancing in public with Mary Booze, a Mississippi African American and GOP committeewoman. During a flurry of arguments over what Bilbo had actually said, he tried to trap Hoover by asking him to state clearly whether it would be “indecent, infamous or disgraceful for you to come in contact with or dance with a woman of the negro race.”
That year, one of the most notorious lynchings in Mississippi history occurred under Bilbo’s watch, the mob murder of an escaped black convict named Charley Shepherd, who ran away from Parchman prison after allegedly killing his supervisor, J. D. Duvall. Bilbo didn’t do anything to stop it, and he had plenty of time to get organized. In the aftermath, his only response to this hellish event was a wisecrack.
The Shepherd case started at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, December 28, when Duvall’s wife found his body on the floor of their dining room, his throat cut and his skull crushed by a hammer. Shouting for help, she realized that their eighteen-year-old daughter, Ruth, was missing. The early assumption was that Ruth had been murdered by the forty-one-year-old Shepherd, who lived among the family as a trusty, cooking and cleaning. A multi-county Delta manhunt ensued that lasted three days and involved airplane surveillance, bloodhounds, and hundreds of armed men driving country roads and marching through forests.
Ruth came out of woods alone on Saturday, dazed and bruised and telling rescuers that Shepherd had kidnapped her and forced her to stagger along with him while he tried to escape. Shepherd gave himself up on Monday morning to a plantation owner, Laura Mae Keeler, after securing her promise that she would turn him over to a jailer instead of vigilantes. Keeler tried to make good on that; she and a few local men attempted to drive Shepherd to jail in the Delta town of Cleveland. But they were stopped on the road by unidentified men who took Shepherd away.
Shepherd may well have been guilty—the evidence certainly pointed that way, and he was in prison for the murder of his wife and mother-in-law—but he deserved his right to due process instead of the prolonged horror show that followed. He was driven through country towns for seven hours to draw a crowd for the ritualistic lynching that everybody knew was coming. Early in the evening of December 31, near the town of Rome—about thirty miles away from Cleveland—some 4,000 to 6,000 people assembled in a forest clearing. Shepherd was tied to a five-foot-high pile of wood, doused with gasoline, and set ablaze. Mob members had crammed mud in his mouth and nostrils so the smoke wouldn’t kill him before the flames did, and he reportedly stayed alive for close to an hour. One newspaper report said his screams could be heard from half a mile away.
Throughout the days of search, capture, and lawlessness, Bilbo made only token attempts to exert executive authority. On Sunday afternoon, he sent three dozen state troops to Parchman, with orders to help with the search but not to take charge. That day, Bilbo left Jackson by car with his son, Theo Jr., en route to Theo’s boarding school in Tennessee. He checked in at Parchman, made an empty comment or two, and left Mississippi. When Shepherd was seized by the mob, the state guard, obeying Bilbo’s orders, made no attempt to find the lynchers or intervene. A spokesman said their job was not “to kill a lot of people trying to take away the murderer….”
Bilbo swung through Parchman on his return trip, looked at Shepherd’s remains—little more than a charred torso with stumps—and announced that his role in the matter was over. “I have neither the time nor the money,” he said, “to investigate 2,000 people.”
The McGee case also featured a dramatic escape attempt, though this was little noticed at the time, was never addressed by McGee’s defenders, and was quickly forgotten once the story ended. On February 20, 1946, inside the Hinds County jail, McGee masterminded a violent jailbreak that involved two other condemned black prisoners, Sherman Street and Charlie Holloway.
Or so it was reported in both Jackson newspapers. It’s possible that the whole thing was a put-on by the jailers, designed to erase McGee’s ability to pursue an insanity defense.
This isn’t as implausible as it sounds. During and after the first trial, McGee was depicted as a terrified imbecile who couldn’t put two words together. But the person behind this escape plot was anything but helpless. He was crafty bordering on brilliant, and ruthless enough to kill his way to freedom.
A faked escape would have served an obvious need for people who wanted to see McGee die. Anyone familiar with the first trial knew that an insanity-based appeal was coming, and there was dread that it might actually work. Jones County prosecutor Albert Easterling was worried that “Jackson doctors and witnesses” would be more gullible or lenient about diagnosing McGee than their Laurel counterparts, so he tried to pressure Sheriff Luther Hill into bringing him back to the Laurel jail. Hill refused. He said it was too dangerous to keep McGee down there for any reason.
News of the escape attempt was splashed across the front pages of both Jackson newspapers, which shouted the underlying message in case anybody missed it. “Willie McGee Faked Dumbness Until Time of Attempted Break from Hinds Jail Cell,” said the Clarion-Ledger’s headline. The story’s lead offered more of the same.
“Willie McGee, convicted rapist waiting an appeal of his death sentence on the grounds of insanity, is crazy—like a fox,” it said.
“This was agreed yesterday by Hinds county officials investigating the Wednesday night attempted jail break which revealed McGee had been putting on an act of helplessness.”
Of course, it could have happened exactly as the jailers described it, because McGee wasn’t mentally deficient. Whether he was faking insanity or was temporarily incapacitated by fear, he found his voice before long: By the time of his second trial in late 1946, he was communicating, haltingly, with his new defense lawyers, and he testified at length during the third trial. McGee, Street, and Holloway all faced imminent execution, so they had good reason to want to escape. And despite the jail’s reputation for being “escape proof,” it wasn’t. McGee’s alleged attempt sounds similar to a pair of successful escapes that happened before and after his incarceration. Prisoners probably knew about the first of these.
The old Hinds County jail no longer exists, but the reason it was considered secure is that it sat on the fourth and fifth floors of the Hinds County Courthouse, a fortresslike art deco structure opened in 1930. You had to take an elevator to get to it, a design that by definition choked off the possibility of easy escapes or rapid mob action. For anyone hoping to get out, the key was overpowering the jailer and getting to the lift.
In February 1944, three “youthful desperadoes” who’d been arrested for trying to rob downtown Jackson’s Robert E. Lee Hotel—white men in their early twenties named Lawrence Motari, Ralph Ward, and Roy Drake—ran past a jailer and trusty, rode down the elevator, stole a car, and kidnapped a high-school girl before being captured. In 1954, Gerald Gallego, a Californian who’d killed a Mississippi policeman on the Gulf Coast, and Minor Sorber, a Parchman inmate who’d killed a fellow prisoner, threw floor-cleaning fluid in the eyes of jailer J. C. Landrum and then beat him with a heavy strip of metal. They too rode the elevator down and fled. Landrum died a few days later; the escapees, both white, were captured and subsequently executed.
According to the Jackson Daily News story about McGee’s attempt, he had playacted his way through an elaborate con, pretending for thirty days straight to be a bedridden invalid, so shell-shocked by his arrest, abuse, and trial that he wouldn’t eat unless he was fed by hand. The jailers had allowed Street, a labor organizer who’d gotten the death penalty for allegedly raping a thirteen-year-old white girl from Jackson—a disputed case that Louis Burnham was also investigating—and Holloway, who’d been condemned to death in the town of Holly Springs, to enter McGee’s cell to feed and wash him.
On the night of the 20th, Street and Holloway went back to their cells after attending to McGee, who then “slipped out of his cell before the master switch could be thrown, locking all the doors of the cell block.” Next, he sneaked over to collect fifteen keys that Holloway had made, supposedly using a file (never found) to grind away at pieces of weather-stripping he’d torn loose from around his cell window. McGee worked his hands through the bars that sealed off the cell block, picked a lock protecting the switch box, and used a coat hanger to throw a lever that opened the main door. Once he accessed the switch box, he opened the doors to Street’s and Holloway’s cells.
After that, the three men hid and called out to the jailer, C. M. Herring, saying McGee needed medical attention. Herring unwittingly walked in, “only to be met by a heavy blow from an iron strip weighing about eight pounds, in the hands of McGee.”
Herring was a large man, 215 pounds, and he put up a “terrific struggle, knocking two of the negroes down several times.” But he was soon beaten to the floor, hit so hard that he suffered five “deep gashes” on the back of his head. He pretended to be unconscious while Holloway begged McGee and Street to stop hitting him with the iron, yelling, “He’s dead!”
Two lawmen, Chief Deputy J. T. Naugher and highway patrolman Sam Moorhead, were downstairs in the sheriff’s office when they heard about the disturbance by way of a phone call from a trusty on another floor. They hopped in the elevator and headed up to stop whatever was going on. Seeing the top of the elevator as it ascended, the three escapees despaired and ran back into their cells, locking themselves in and throwing the keys into the jail’s main corridor.
Neither newspaper ran a picture of the prisoners, but both ran photos of Herring, sitting up in a hospital bed the next day, less than twenty-four hours after the attack. He was smoking a cigarette, and though his head was wrapped in bandages, he looked chipper for a man who’d had his skull bashed in the night before. The stories said he suffered badly bruised arms and a dislocated right shoulder. In the photographs, he was shirtless, and no bruises or scratches were visible. His left arm, not his right, was in a sling, and his face was unmarked. The Jackson Daily News may have understated things when it said he was responding “nicely” to treatment.
As for McGee, with the plot foiled, he reportedly reverted to his old ways. “All during the morning,” the Daily News said, he “howled like an animal in his solitary cell. He was quiet whenever no one was around, but if someone passed his cell door and made any noise, he would put up a heart-rending cry and moan.”
If McGee did howl, he had good reason. In those days, Mississippi kept its executions moving: Street and Holloway were both dead within six months. McGee knew he might not be far behind.
Lynching statistics are an inexact science, but there had been a time when something like the Charley Shepherd killing happened every week in a Southern state, and Mississippi, running neck and neck with Georgia, probably had the highest rate of them all. According to Lynchings in Mississippi, a 2006 study by Julius E. Thompson, roughly 500 of the 5,000 or more U.S. lynching victims between 1865 and 1965 died in Mississippi. Between 1890 and 1920, the state saw at least 450 lynchings, an average of more than one a month. A few victims were white men or black women, but the overwhelming majority were black men, who were killed without trial for alleged crimes ranging from murder and rape—murder, or a charge of murder, being the most common by far—to arson, assault, burglary, counterfeiting, and non-crimes like “insulting a white woman” and “informing.”
The South, of course, wasn’t the only place where lynchings occurred, and they didn’t happen only to blacks. According to Thompson’s figures, the number of blacks lynched nationally in the 1880s was actually less than the total number of whites, because lynching was still a common form of frontier justice in the West. But in Mississippi the practice was primarily a tactic of racial control and revenge, and that pattern solidified as the years went by. Thompson counted 280 Mississippi lynchings in the 1880s, 20 of which where of whites. In the 1890s, there were 195 lynchings, only 5 involving whites. By the 1930s, a decade that saw 52 lynchings, only 2 had white victims, and in the 1940s there were 15, none involving whites.
As lynching totals went down overall, Southern politicians and newspaper editors often proclaimed that the region was solving the problem on its own, so there was no need for interference in the form of federal anti-lynching legislation. In one sense this was true: 1895 was a lot worse than 1945, when the Tuskegee Institute—the Alabama-based academic research center that kept an official tally of American lynchings—counted just one Southern lynching, of a Florida man named Jesse James Payne. But groups like the CRC often argued that Tuskegee’s counting methods were too conservative, and that they missed cases that should have been tabulated.
No doubt they were right. Tuskegee’s own clip files on lynching—a massive collection of several decades’ worth of newspaper stories and reports on lynchings, legal lynchings, and similar incidents—sometimes contain newspaper stories about racial atrocities that didn’t show up in its own year-end statistics.
For example, a few months after McGee’s alleged jailbreak in 1946, in the Mississippi Delta town of Indianola, a twenty-eight-year-old black man named Alonzo Rush was reportedly lynched with the full cooperation of officials in the surrounding county, Sunflower. According to a story published in the Afro-American newspaper, Rush had been accused of having an affair with a white woman, who admitted to the affair but refused to press charges. Rush was kidnapped, taken off into some woods, executed in what the paper described as a “home-made electric chair,” and delivered to a black undertaker, who gave a reporter a grisly description of his remains.
“Electricity of high voltage had passed through the body for about five minutes,” the story said. “The scalp where the cap fitted was cooked thoroughly in barbecue fashion. Flesh around the knee, where the knee band was placed, was cooked to the bone.”
Did this really happen? That’s hard to say, but the detailed account makes it seem likely. Even so, Tuskegee didn’t include Rush in its lynching totals for 1946.
In 1950, a year when Tuskegee reported only two lynchings, its annual roundup didn’t count the notorious Attala County massacre, which happened southwest of the central Mississippi town of Kosciusko on January 8, 1950. The trouble began on December 22, 1949, when three white men who’d been drinking moonshine—Malcum Whitt, Windol Whitt, and Leon Turner—went on a spree that involved harassing three black families in their rural cabins. At the home of sharecropper Thomas Harris, they tried to rape Harris’s wife, Mary Ella, and were arrested at the scene by the county sheriff, who’d been alerted by one of the other families. They escaped from jail about a week later, hid in the woods several days, and descended on the Harris cabin on the night of the 8th, apparently believing Harris had turned them in. Turner went inside with a pistol, wounding two people and killing three: Frankie Thurman, 12, Mary Burnside, 8, and Ruby Nell Harris, 4. Though the prosecution pressed hard for a death penalty in the cases of Turner and Windol Whitt, all three men got prison terms.
By the mid-to late 1940s, with lynching on the wane, groups like the CRC were paying just as much attention to legal lynching, which they said Tuskegee also undercounted. “In its 1947 report on lynchings in America the Tuskegee Institute notes that there has been a decrease in deaths by mob action during the past 10 years,” said a Daily Worker story from 1947. “In that period the Alabama Negro college states that 273 lynchings have been prevented by officials or citizens….
“The report does not show, though, what happened to those who were ‘saved’ from the intended extralegal executioners.” The story went on to argue that many of these people wound up just as dead, following one-sided trials before all-white juries.
“Legal lynching” cases are even harder to quantify than lynchings, but the best measure is probably state-by-state executions for rape—an offense for which black men were disproportionately condemned—and there, the available statistics support the view of the CRC. According to one tally, between 1800 and 1964, Mississippi executed 29 men for rape or attempted rape, all of them black.
In this category, though, Mississippi wasn’t the leader: The numbers were much higher in other Southern states, including Texas, Georgia, and Virginia. In Texas, the estimated execution total over the same time period was 137; in Georgia it was 108; and in Virginia it was 136. Not long before McGee’s execution, Virginia executed 7 black men accused of taking part in a rape of the same woman. They were known as the Martinsville Seven, and their case would join his as a rallying cause for the left.
Because the CRC didn’t trust Tuskegee’s statistics, the group, from the start of its existence, began compiling clips and records of its own. Years later, the CRC would make explosive use of this material, generating headlines around the world about the unjust practices of Southern courts.
News of McGee’s jailbreak rattled Forrest Jackson. In late February, he sent the local newspaper stories to Abraham J. Isserman, a labor lawyer affiliated with the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties. “I regret that this disturbance occurred and may prove most unfortunate on appeal results,” he wrote. “This apparently demonstrates that Willie McGee has been faking as to his mental condition and as to his inability to talk.”
Nonetheless, Jackson filed the appeal on March 28, arguing that the lower court should have granted McGee’s lawyers more time, a change of venue, and a proper examination by a qualified physician or psychiatrist.
“The futility of their hurried effort at defense without his help, without investigation or the searching out of witnesses, is apparent from the record,” Jackson wrote. “…The proceeding pressed on relentlessly to conviction and sentencing, with no opportunity for unprepared counsel to catch their breath, or to remedy their enforced lack of prior preparation. An ignorant negro pauper on trial for his life was, through lack of time, denied effective counsel and left defenseless in the face of death.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on June 10, granting McGee a new trial on venue grounds but ignoring all the other claims. Citing cases in Mississippi and other states, the court said it was well established that when “the public is so aroused against [the] accused that it [is] necessary to call out the militia or otherwise protect him from violence or to remove him from the county,” a change of venue should be automatic.
As a precedent, the judges mentioned a Texas case that involved an African-American man who had killed a white man during a fight, which reportedly started with a show of “impertinence and insolence” by the killer. The case aroused fury among local whites—necessitating a militia escort at the trial similar to the one that safeguarded McGee and the Hernando defendants—and the Texas court noted that verbal disrespect, by itself, had compounded the danger to the defendant.
The Mississippi judges agreed, adding that McGee’s crime involved an even greater insult: interracial sexual assault. “It will be noticed that…the [Texas] court referred to impertinence and insolence on the part of negroes towards white people as fruitful sources of aggravation,” the opinion said. “How much more so is a charge, and reasonable grounds to believe it, of rape by a negro against a white woman.”
Now that McGee was getting a new trial, he needed a new lawyer, because Forrest Jackson was bowing out. Why? Most likely, he got cold feet after the alleged jailbreak. Or he may have been too busy. By November 1946, when the second McGee trial took place, Senator Bilbo was embroiled in the last big battle of his life.
Bilbo’s final exit was a theatrical event that made for an irresistible spectacle in newspapers all over the nation. It combined new forms of organized protest involving Mississippi blacks and their Southern and Northern allies; political fireworks; the Man’s legendary mouth; and the wrathful hand of fate, which hit Bilbo hard during his remaining months.
Fueling everything was the fight over African American voting rights in Southern states, which had been at issue in an important U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1944, Smith v. Allwright. In that case, argued before the Court by Thurgood Marshall, the justices ruled eight to one that an all-white Democratic primary held in Texas was unconstitutional. This set the stage for attempts by African-Americans to vote in Mississippi’s Democratic primary on July 2, 1946. That prospect, as much as anything, sent Bilbo over the edge.
He’d been heading that way for a while. In 1938, railing against one of several anti-lynching bills that stalled in the Senate—thanks to Southern filibusters—Bilbo said, “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie….”
In 1944, he promised to make Eleanor Roosevelt “queen of Greater Liberia” once he succeeded in his quest to send American blacks “back” to West Africa. In the summer of 1945, he shadowboxed with his longtime enemy, New York congressman Vito Marcantonio. A woman from Brooklyn named Josephine Piccolo wrote Bilbo to criticize him for opposing the extension of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, part of Roosevelt’s wartime push to ban discriminatory hiring in national defense industries. “I find it very hard to believe that you are an American citizen,” she wrote. Bilbo returned serve with a letter that began, “My Dear Dago,” followed by, “If I am mistaken in this, please correct me.”
Marcantonio wrote Bilbo to demand an apology. In his reply, Bilbo denied that “dago” was a slur against Italians—it was no more offensive than “Hoosier,” he insisted—even as he piled on the Italian slurs. “It is through you and your gang,” he wrote, “and I dare say many of them are gangsters, from the sin-soaked, communistic sections of the great metropolis of New York, that practically all the rotten, crackpot, communistic legislative schemes are being thrown into the congressional ‘mill.’…”
In March 1947, with Mississippi politicians busily trying to figure out new legal impediments to black voting rights, Bilbo published a book called Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization? in which he argued that the only solution to the looming race crisis was permanent segregation and eventual repatriation. Quoting from an earlier tract by another writer, he pushed the old, discredited idea that African Americans, whom he called “anthropoid apes,” were members not just of a different race, but a different species.
“[T]he hair is short, black, and frizzly—in fact, distinctly wooly,” Take Your Choice said. “Soft and velvety to the touch, the negro epidermis is, for the most part, quite free from hair, and would be interesting were it not for the outrageous odor it emits, especially under heat and excitement. This is sometimes so strong that I have known persons of our own race brought almost to the stage of emesis when compelled to inhale it for any length of time.”
At the heart of Take Your Choice, which flew off the shelves in Jackson, was the same taboo subject that made the McGee case so dangerous: interracial sex. Bilbo didn’t deny that it had happened in the South, but he believed, or pretended to believe, that the contact had always been one-way: white men having relations with black women.
In South America, he argued, the situation was different and disastrous—unchecked, two-way race-mixing there had debased the entire continent with a population of “mestizos, mulattoes, zambos, terceroones, quadroons, cholos, musties, fusties, and dusties.” But in America, “[a]s disgraceful as the sins of some white men” had been, “[S]outhern white women have preserved the integrity of their race, and there is no one who can today point the finger of suspicion in any manner whatsoever at the blood which flows in the veins of the white sons and daughters of the South.”
In the summer of 1946, Bilbo cranked it up as the Democratic primary approached. Reporters followed him around Mississippi, taking down his most outrageous statements. Much of it was the same old stuff, but with black voting rights now on the table, he broke new ground.
“Mississippi is white,” he said. “We got the right to keep it that way…. [I’m] calling on every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no nigger votes…. And the best time to do it is the night before!”
Bilbo kept it up as the primary approached. On June 22, speaking in Jackson, he argued that every “red-blooded Anglo-Saxon man in Mississippi” should use any means necessary to keep blacks away from polling places. “And if you don’t know what that means,” he said, “you are just not up on your persuasive measures.”
Even before election day, people started acting on such words. On June 6, Etoy Fletcher, an army veteran attending Jackson College on the G.I. Bill, was seized by four white men after attempting to register in the town of Brandon. In an affidavit, he said they drove him to a stand of woods, stripped him, and flogged his legs with a wire cable, threatening to kill him if he tried to register again.
Bilbo won the election on July 2, narrowly avoiding a runoff in a crowded field but beating his nearest opponent by nearly 40,000 votes. The “night before” line wasn’t forgotten, however. The Senate initially declined to act, but on September 6, the Campaign Investigating Committee announced that it would look into complaints about Bilbo’s statements. His enemies were confident that they were incendiary enough to get him booted out of Congress.
Bilbo had gone too far plenty of times. Why was 1946 any different? One factor was purely political. The GOP had won House and Senate majorities in the 1946 election. Going after Bilbo was a no-lose proposition.
But there were other reasons too. The country was changing, slowly but perceptibly, and people were paying more attention to his excesses. More than a million African Americans had served in World War II, 85,000 of them from Mississippi, and they came back with a pent-up demand for basic rights in areas like voting and jury selection. The July primary was the first since Reconstruction in which significant numbers of black Mississippians voted; despite Bilbo’s threats, roughly 1,000 cast a ballot.
Meanwhile, Bilbo had picked a bad year to get caught inciting midnight attacks on black people, because too much of that was going on already. The wartime dip in Southern lynchings ended in 1946, a year that saw a new outbreak of violence, much of it directed at returning black soldiers.
Some of these cases became famous, including the February 1946 beating and blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr., a twenty-seven-year-old veteran of the Pacific theater, on his way home from military service, who was arrested in Batesburg, South Carolina, after a disturbance on a Greyhound bus. During a stop about an hour north of Atlanta, Woodard asked the bus’s white driver if he had time to run inside and use a restroom. The driver said no and cursed him; Woodard cursed him back, and the driver told him to go ahead but make it fast. At the next stop, Batesburg, the driver contacted the police and told them Woodard was drunk and disorderly. He was taken off the bus by Police Chief Lynwood Shull, clubbed, and hauled into jail, where he was punched in the eyes with the end of a billy club. By the next morning, he’d permanently lost his eyesight.
The Woodard blinding became a national symbol of the injustices being committed against black veterans. Orson Welles talked about it repeatedly on his ABC-Radio show Orson Welles Commentaries, and Woody Guthrie wrote a protest song called “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.” In August, 20,000 people turned out at a Harlem rally to raise money for his medical care and living expenses. In an interview, Woodard, a Bronx resident, echoed a theme heard again and again that year.
“Negro veterans that fought in this war don’t realize that the real battle has just begun in America,” he said. “They went overseas and did their duty, and now they’re home and have to fight another struggle, that I think outweighs the war.” Woodard’s personal struggle was an exercise in frustration. In November, Shull was acquitted of federal civil rights charges at a trial in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1947, Woodard sued Greyhound—and lost.
Other notorious 1946 incidents occurred in Columbia, Tennessee; Walton County, Georgia; and Webster Parish, Louisiana. In Columbia, on February 25, an argument and fight involving a navy veteran named James Stephenson, his mother Gladys, and William Fleming, a white radio repairman, led to the Stephensons’ arrest and release on bail. In short order, a mob formed near the black part of town, known as Mink Slide. That night, residents of the neighborhood doused lights and loaded weapons, anticipating a vigilante attack. Many of these men were returning soldiers, and it was rumored later that several white mob members did in fact charge into Mink Slide, only to be wounded or killed, their deaths attributed locally to “heart failure.”
“It is felt that white Columbia can’t admit, even to this day, that it took a beating when colored decided to protect themselves and prevent one of the most dastardly crimes known to humanity,” the Afro-Americanreported. “Mink Slide stood…as a solid wall….”
What is known is that four white policemen, patrolling the streets that night, were wounded by shotgun pellets. The next morning, hundreds of police and state patrolmen went in to arrest the shooters and get some payback. They ransacked businesses, searched homes, seized weapons, and arrested upwards of one hundred people. Two days later, two prisoners, William Gordon and James Johnson, were shot to death by guards at the Columbia jail, allegedly while trying to escape. Only the black rioters were charged, most of them with attempted murder. The case went to trial later that year, with Thurgood Marshall leading the defense. In October, to the surprise of nearly everyone, an all-white jury acquitted twenty-three of the twenty-five defendants.
In Georgia, one of the most notorious lynchings of the postwar era happened on July 25, when two young tenant-farmer couples—Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Dorsey—were shot to death in broad daylight by two dozen white men who waited for them in an ambush. Roger Malcom had been jailed in the north-central Georgia town of Monroe after he had a fight with Barney Hester Jr., the son of the landowner he worked for. What started the fight was unclear—one rumor had it that Hester took a romantic interest in Dorothy Malcom—but it ended when Malcom wounded Hester with a pocketknife. He was arrested and jailed. After a week behind bars, he was bailed out by a local landowner named J. Loy Harrison, who was supposed to drive him, Dorothy, and the Dorseys back to their homes. Instead he took a different road and handed them over to a mob, claiming that he was taken by surprise. All four were taken into a stand of woods, lined up four abreast, and gunned down with dozens of rounds from pistols, rifles, and shotguns. The case became a national scandal and prompted a major probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI, but no one was ever charged with murder or federal civil rights violations.
Finally, there was the August 1946 lynching of army veteran John C. Jones near Minden, Louisiana. Jones and a cousin, Albert Harris Jr., were arrested for allegedly prowling around the home of a white woman named Maddry. This appeared to be a frame-up, and it came out later that Jones had been asking questions about oil-producing land that his grandfather owned, which the old man had leased out for a pathetically low amount. After being held for several days, Jones and Harris were freed when Mrs. Maddry declined to press charges. Upon their release, a group of armed men abducted them, threw them into separate cars, and drove into the country. Harris was beaten severely but survived and managed to escape. Jones died, reportedly after being tortured with a meat cleaver and a blowtorch. Subsequent investigation pointed to a conspiracy involving local law enforcement officials, but there were no criminal indictments. The federal government later brought civil rights charges against five men, including two deputy sheriffs and three oil-field workers. All were found not guilty in 1947.
Senator Bilbo had no role in any of these killings, but many people believed his rhetoric and style had everything to do with them. Speaking at a protest rally in Washington after the Malcom-Dorsey lynchings, Max Yergan, president of the National Negro Congress, said that Bilbo and others like him “stand with bloody hands in the murders of these men and women of Georgia….” In Yergan’s view, they should be “brought to the bar of justice as the stooges of Hitler were brought to the bar of justice at Nuremberg.”
That fall, two investigations of Bilbo took shape. One centered on voter intimidation; the other was a probe by a Senate subcommittee into alleged kickbacks paid to Bilbo by defense contractors.
The Man also faced very serious health problems. He was a cigar smoker, and that summer he developed a gum irritation that led to a diagnostic procedure in New Orleans. It revealed a malignancy and infection that required the removal of part of his jaw. He bragged that the operation gave him “more mouth” and said that all traces of the cancer were gone, but in fact the disease made rapid progress as the new year approached.
The voting-rights challenge marked the first major crusade by the Civil Rights Congress, which spent thousands on its national “Un-seat Bilbo” Campaign. Novelist Dashiell Hammett, who served as the CRC’s New York president during the organization’s early years, wrote Bilbo to invite him to a Manhattan dinner—set up to raise funds for his removal—telling him to “feel free to come” but to leave “your klansman’s outfit home.”
It also marked the first time the CRC crossed paths with the NAACP during a cause, and the NAACP kept its distance. Both groups had a hand in organizing testimony by Mississippi blacks regarding voter intimidation, but NAACP head Walter White ruled out the idea of cooperating with the CRC, arguing that “it is imperative that this…be done under non-Communist auspices lest there be support for Bilbo as a victim of the ‘Reds.’”
Ultimately, both groups got help from in-state organizers who rounded up witnesses. The CRC’s point man was Percy Greene, editor of the Jackson Advocate, the state’s leading black newspaper. Greene would be heard from again as the Willie McGee case gained traction.
In early December, a five-member Senate committee traveled to Jackson to take testimony from Mississippi citizens, among them several blacks and black veterans who described the threats and violence they’d experienced while trying to vote. In a hearing held at the federal building downtown, Etoy Fletcher repeated his story about the beating he took at Brandon. Varnado R. Collier, who tried to vote in Gulfport, said he was swarmed by ten or fifteen men who knocked him senseless. Joseph Parham of McComb testified that, after he registered, an unidentified white man came up to him and said, “What kind of flowers do you want?” In all, roughly one hundred witnesses were called between December 2 and 4. Forrest Jackson was there throughout, counseling Bilbo and challenging testimony.
Bilbo was there for it all, looking cadaverous but feisty, dressed as usual with his diamond stickpin. He rallied enough to read a prepared statement, take questions, and cackle at his enemies. He admitted that, yes, he favored any lawful means of prohibiting blacks from voting, denying that he had advocated any unlawful acts. He also denied saying, as the Clarion-Ledger summarized his words, “that negroes trying to vote should have gasoline poured on them, or that the leaders of the Mississippi Progressive Voter’s League…should be atomically bombed and exterminated from the surface of the earth.”
Questioners like Iowa senator Bourke Hickenlooper confronted him with other things he’d said, including this statement: “The white people of Mississippi are sitting on a volcano…. We are faced with a nationwide campaign to integrate the nigger with the social life of this country.”
“I subscribe to that,” Bilbo replied. “If I didn’t say it, I wish I had.”
Did he also say, “The nigger is only 150 years from the jungles of Africa, where it was his great delight to cut him up some fried nigger steak for breakfast”?
Had he also said that Clare Booth Luce, the author and wife of Time founder Henry Luce, was “the greatest nigger-lover in the north except Old Lady Eleanor Roosevelt”?
“I said that,” he agreed with a smile, “…that is true too.”
The committee’s Democratic chairman, Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, shrugged off any link between Bilbo’s rhetoric and violent acts, saying that he hoped Bilbo would be unanimously exonerated. The senators’ vote broke three to two in Bilbo’s favor, along party lines, and the committee dutifully forwarded its report to Congress.
When the new Senate convened in January 1947, leaders of the Republican majority organized to try to deny Bilbo his seat, pending further investigation into the charges. Southerners began a filibuster, and pro-and anti-Bilbo forces were still fighting it out when a “compromise” was reached on January 4.
In truth, it was a stalemate. Bilbo had to go back to New Orleans for a new round of jaw surgery, so final resolution of the fight was tabled until he returned. He left, by car, before dawn the next day, with Forrest Jackson loyally on hand to drive him home. “If I live I will be back with my fighting clothes on,” he vowed before leaving Washington. “And if I die I’ll come back and haunt you.”
Bilbo spent the next few months in Jackson and New Orleans, dealing with medical procedures and rallying for one last show of public defiance. In March 1947, he held a barbecue for 10,000 people in his hometown of Poplarville, the site of a beloved estate he called the “Dream House.” One of his guests was Gerald L. K. Smith, a nationally prominent white supremacist who called Bilbo “the most persecuted man in the world.”
The Man died in New Orleans on August 21, 1947. During his final hospital stay, he either had a last-minute conversion or forgot his most cherished beliefs. In an interview done a few weeks before his death, he told African-American journalist Leon P. Lewis, of the Negro South, “I hold nothing personal against the Negroes as a race.” He probably thought he meant it.