The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
4. HER JITTERBUG
McGee’s second circuit-court trial started on October 7, 1946, in the Jones County Courthouse. After the Mississippi Supreme Court’s reversal, a change of venue seemed like a given. But on the 9th, Judge Collins said no to the defense’s motion for a shift in locale, accepting the state’s claim that a “fair and impartial” jury could be assembled in Laurel.
Collins was just being stubborn. He knew nothing had changed, and it was obvious the trial had to be moved. For three days in a row, McGee was transported from Hinds County to Jones by armed state troops who were there for one reason: to keep him from getting lynched. “Twenty troopers were stationed inside the courthouse and thirty were ranged about the yard with machine guns in trucks, while the negro was placed in jail,” the Leader-Callreported after the first of the transfers.
This time, McGee’s defense was in the hands of a more formidable lawyer: Dixon Pyles, a short, burly, balding thirty-three-year-old who took over at Forrest Jackson’s recommendation and whose fees and expenses were paid by the CRC. Jackson and Pyles knew each other from political and legal circles. Both had been Bilbo supporters—during the Depression, Bilbo had gotten Pyles a much-needed federal patronage job—and both kept offices in the Century Building, a structure in the heart of downtown Jackson, no longer standing, that was popular with attorneys.
Pyles became a prominent figure in Mississippi and was known for representing labor unions, including locals affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). That was another small irony, since Bilbo, Pyles’s onetime mentor, hated the CIO. Bilbo could be pro-labor in his way—he supported the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act, which protected the rights of workers to join unions and engage in collective bargaining—but his loyalties were to railroad unions and the craft-oriented American Federation of Labor (AFL). To him, the industrial workers’ union was too friendly to both blacks and Reds, and the CIO alienated him further when its political action committee targeted him for defeat in 1946.
“Bilbo was convinced that the Communists were in back of [the CIO],” Pyles told historian Chester M. Morgan in an interview, “and that if they…became as well-organized as he thought they would, then Communism would take over through them. So he fought the industrial unions tooth and nail.”
In 1946, Pyles was less worried about labor-union preferences than about finding paid labor for himself. He’d served in the army during World War II, landing in Normandy shortly after D-day and seeing action in five major European campaigns. He was still rebuilding his practice when Jackson approached him. “I had no business, and so in order to give me some business, Forrest Jackson persuaded me to become the defense counsel for Willie McGee,” Pyles recalled. “And I persuaded, against his will, a young lawyer named Dan Breland to assist me in it.”
Over the years, Pyles sat for several interviews in which he talked about what it was like to defend McGee. Describing packed courtrooms and a “wrought up” public mood, he said he had no doubt that he and Breland could have gotten McGee or themselves killed if they’d said or done the wrong thing in court.
He meant this seriously, but he also joked about it as time went by. For the rest of his life, Pyles entertained colleagues with a well-practiced anecdote about a death threat he got in Jones County, after he presented arguments for a change of venue. The way he told it, a group of surly local white men was waiting for him and Breland at the bottom of the courthouse stairs, angry that he was trying to get the trial moved. One of them called Pyles a son of a bitch and told him he had exactly thirty minutes to get out of Jones County.
Tossing his keys to Breland, Pyles said, “You take care of the car.” Not wanting to waste a second, he started running toward the county line, moving so fast that he skimmed over the surface of a mill pond. As for that thirty-minute time limit? “I’ve still got twenty-nine of them left,” he laughed in his loud, raspy voice.
In the end, Pyles got his way about venue. Cooler heads in Laurel persuaded Collins that he had to step aside and let someone else make the decision. “[M]embers of the bar down there told him he was making a fool of himself, that he would be reversed again,” Pyles said. “…[H]e excused himself on the grounds that his wife was sick.”
By the time the trial opened, a circuit judge from a different part of the state—John Stennis, who replaced Bilbo in the Senate in 1947—had taken over temporarily, and he quickly decided Laurel was too dangerous. At the start of the day’s proceedings on October 16, heavily armed state guardsmen were ordered to assemble inside the courtroom to form a protective barrier between McGee, 150 potential jurymen sitting inside, and a sizable number of muttering men who were outside but wanted in. Spectators were barred, but the Leader-Call said another 150 people were gathered on the other side of the courtroom doors, along with “scores” more on the courthouse lawn.
“I don’t like the idea of trying a case behind guns,” Stennis grumbled. He said he’d received reports about citizens making angry remarks in the presence of guardsmen. So he shut the whole thing down and sent it to Hattiesburg, a similarly sized pine-belt town thirty miles southwest of Laurel, in Forrest County.
Challenging the venue was one thing, but there was another line of attack that Pyles wouldn’t touch: McGee’s claim that he’d had consensual sex with Mrs. Hawkins, and that she started it. Contrary to some published accounts of the case, this allegation was not introduced at any of the circuit-court trials—in fact, it wasn’t made public until very late in the appeals process—but McGee definitely told his lawyers that the real story involved seduction, not rape. He conveyed this to Forrest Jackson in late 1945 or early 1946 in a statement that he either wrote himself or dictated to a fellow inmate in the Hinds County jail.
Pyles first talked about the statement in 1952, sharing its contents with a private investigator from New York who had been sent to Mississippi after the case ended by a law firm representing the Daily Worker. The investigator, whose name was only given as “Mr. Spivak,” was assigned to dig up new evidence that McGee’s affair story was true, because by then the paper had a potentially expensive problem on its hands: a libel suit for $1 million filed by Willette Hawkins in 1951 at the federal district court in Manhattan.
After the McGee case ended, Mrs. Hawkins hired the Jackson law firm of future governor Ross Barnett—one of the best in Mississippi—to pursue a libel action against the Daily Worker, claiming that it had defamed her by writing about the affair as if it were proven. Daily Worker editors and Communist Party officials realized with a gulp that the affair story was never argued before a jury, just alleged and denied during appeals, so they opened their own investigation. Spivak went to Jackson and Laurel for several days in June and July of 1952, where he spoke with at least four of McGee’s defense lawyers—Pyles, Breland, and third-trial counsel John Poole and Alvin London—and to Mrs. Hawkins’s preacher, the Reverend Grayson L. Tucker. The interviews survive as blurry carbon copies in the CRC’s files.
Spivak talked to Pyles on June 30 at his law office in Jackson. “I’ll tell you what the problem is,” he said as they settled in. “We’ve got a million-dollar suit on our hands as a result of the McGee case…. I’m looking for some leads about some information—about the lady in question whose honor has been impugned.”
Pyles knew about the lawsuit, so it’s surprising he opened up to a stranger who for all practical purposes was taping a deposition. But, to varying degrees, most of the lawyers spoke frankly about their experiences defending McGee. It was as if they relished the chance to show off their battle scars.
By that point, Pyles couldn’t remember whether McGee first gave the statement to him or to Forrest Jackson. But he thought he must have inherited it from Jackson, because throughout the pretrial and trial periods, Pyles was unable to get McGee to say more than a handful of words to him.
Why this resistance to his own lawyer? Pyles speculated that McGee had experienced so much stress and terror, and had bonded so strongly with Jackson, that he was unable to transfer his trust to another white attorney. “Forrest Jackson…had developed a good rapport with Willie McGee,” he said. “McGee somehow got the impression that I was part of the establishment that was attempting to take his life, and he refused to talk with me, to give me any facts, at all.”
Jackson told McGee he ought to have faith in Pyles, but it didn’t help: “[H]e did not tell me anything and I think it was out of fear, complete, paralyzing fear and distrust.”
Pyles decided to say nothing about the affair claim at the trial. As he told Spivak, to make such an accusation in a Mississippi court was extremely dangerous, but there was another problem: He couldn’t find independent evidence to support it. Pyles used two investigators of his own to poke around Laurel in search of fresh intelligence about this or anything else that might help McGee’s defense. One was Laurent Frantz, a white CRC attorney from Knoxville, Tennessee, who had been part of the anti-Bilbo push. Another was an African-American attorney from Mississippi named Dan Williams. Pyles and Breland also got research help from two Jackson colleagues, E. T. Calhoun and Tom Watkins. Nobody turned up witnesses about the affair.
It’s an open question whether they tried very hard. Pyles said he doubted that any Laurel citizens, of either race, would have talked or testified about a love affair between a black man and a white woman, and it seems unlikely he would have called them to the stand, even if he had the goods. Many years later, he told an interviewer that, in retrospect, he found the affair story “hard to believe.”
“I’ll tell you why I never raised the story,” he told Spivak. “…[I]f you introduced this thing down there—that court room was packed—[it] would have started a riot, would have had no appreciable difference in the outcome of the jury. They wouldn’t have believed it…. Those people couldn’t have done otherwise and lived in that community. Of course, you don’t know how high that feeling gets. You’re from New York…. You don’t know how high a feeling can get in a community like that down there.”
“It was pretty…pretty explosive,” Spivak said.
“Oh, it was. Completely so…[T]here would have been a near riot in the courtroom, no doubt about that. Whenever you charge a white woman in the south with having sexual relations with a nigger in this part of the country, why, you better be God-damn sure.”
“We wouldn’t have lived to have gotten out of town.”
Spivak paused on that, to make sure Pyles meant it. “You wouldn’t have lived to have gotten out of town?”
“Well, if we had used that. Unless we would have had the facts absolutely. Then she probably wouldn’t have lived. They would have killed her.”
“…So, in other words, the situation was such that even if everybody believed that this was so, it just wasn’t wise to introduce it.”
“[You] couldn’t have—and lived.”
“So [you] followed the procedure that it’s best to forget it?”
“Well, there was no evidence to back it up. There was just his words and him in a state where he couldn’t testify. The only way we could have brought it up was in cross-examination of her. In an atmosphere like that, why, they would have chewed us up like cotton.”
Dan Breland—who, unlike Pyles, didn’t relish talking about the case—made similar points with Spivak, calling the trial’s atmosphere “very frightening.” If McGee had talked about interracial sex in court, he said, “[H]e probably wouldn’t have got off the stand. He would have been killed there.”
“And the lawyers with him?”
“Yeah, that’s sure,” Breland said. He returned to this theme later, saying that if he and Pyles had known what they were getting into, “money couldn’t have hired us” to take the case.
“Was it that much of a danger?”
“Yeah. We’re lucky we got out of it.”
There was another angle to McGee’s story that never became public knowledge, even after 1951. As Pyles explained to Spivak, McGee claimed the affair was tied into an elaborate murder plot. He said Mrs. Hawkins had told him she was pregnant with his child and had pressured him to kill her husband, so she could collect what Pyles described as “a fifteen thousand dollar double indemnity” life-insurance policy that Troy had taken out.
“Her husband had what?” Spivak said.
Pyles told him again. Spivak asked if he knew which company wrote the policy.
“I don’t know what company it was.”
“Indemnity policy…and she wanted McGee to—”
“She wanted McGee to kill her husband so that she could get the thirty thousand dollars; and that, in place of paying him any money, that he could have sexual intercourse with her.”
While Pyles kept talking, it occurred to him that he might have the original letter—he’d handed some of his McGee files over to the lead third-trial lawyer, John Poole, but not all—so he looked around until he found it. The statement, written in childish handwriting, filled three sheets of yellow tablet paper.
“Now, here, I don’t know whether Willie wrote this or not, but here is a statement that came down into our hands and we were told it was written by Willie,” Pyles said. “It shows—tell[s] you the whole story—gives you everything. I think it’s his own writing.” He started reading it into the tape recorder.
Willie McGee, born November 4, 1915, at Pachuta, Miss. Came to Laurel, Miss. at four years old. Went to school at Laurel until I got to 7 grade and got married 1935 to Eliza Jane Payton in Laurel, Miss. Have four children. Lived with my mother in Laurel until worked for McRae Service Station, 1936 to 1937. Worked at Eastman Garden [Gardiner] Company until cut out and went to work for Masonite in 1938 and quit then. Went to work in 1939 with Bethea Grocery….
That was the style throughout: conversational, rambling, moving through time in sudden leaps. McGee mentioned other jobs and moves—he went off to New Orleans for a while, worked on the riverfront, then returned to Laurel in 1941 to work at Bethea again—after which there was a gap of several years and a confusing section in which he seemed to say he’d enlisted in the army but was discharged because of “something on the brain.” By that point, suddenly, it was 1944.
McGee said the affair started in August of that year, but that he had encountered Mrs. Hawkins before then. Once or twice in the past, he said, as he walked through her neighborhood, she had acted friendly and tried to get him to come inside her house to do chores.
Every time she would see me she would smile and pick on me. She would call me her jitterbug. So one morning…as I passed her house on South Magnolia she called me and I went up to her porch and she asked me to come on in and I went on in. She told me she had wanted a little work that she wanted did so [she] asked me what would I charge to wash windows and wax the floors. Then she said that seem like I was afraid of white folks. I told her I was not. She said to me you must be, you must be. You act like you are ready to run. So she caught hold of my arm and pulled me up to her. So I caught around her and kissed her. And she said to me, Do you want to love me? And I said: My, oh—yes. And she walked on back in the bedroom and laid across the bed and I pulled my pants down and got on her…. This was on Saturday morning, one morning in August. Cannot give the exact date but it was in August 1944.
Abruptly, without providing dates, McGee said, “I left Laurel and went to Nevada for a while.” When he came back—he didn’t say when—Mrs. Hawkins presented him with shocking news. “I went to see her one night and she told me that she was in the family way and that I had done it,” he said.
According to McGee, the murder plot was hatched at this moment. He claimed that Mrs. Hawkins was in love with him and wanted them to run away together. “She said that she would get the insurance money and we’d go to California together and get married,” he wrote. The plot fell apart, McGee said, only because he didn’t want to do the killing. He left Laurel again and went to California, and then came back sometime in 1945, at which point the insatiable Mrs. Hawkins started badgering him again.
In this part of the statement, McGee sidetracked into logistical details about how the affair worked. Sometimes he would sneak into the back of the Hawkins home, with Troy either out of the house or in the front room, asleep. Twice, Mrs. Hawkins picked him up on the street and drove him to a “Negro cemetery” where they had sex in her car. Twice she showed up at a service station where he worked—“Mr. Joe Newson Service Station in Laurel,” he said. He quit that job because he was scared her carelessness would get him in serious trouble.
Everything came to a head in October and November of 1945. McGee said he went to Mrs. Hawkins’s home on a Wednesday night—October 31—to borrow $20. “She got at me again about killing her husband and I told her I would be back Thursday night and would do it,” he said.
McGee admitted that on Thursday he drank, gambled, lost his company’s money, and then parked his truck near the Hawkins home—just as the prosecution had sketched it at the first trial. But all similarities ended there. The prosecutors said he crawled through a window and took Mrs. Hawkins by surprise in the dark. McGee said she was eagerly awaiting his arrival. He scratched on a window screen and she let him in the front door, thinking he was there to murder Troy. But he told her he wasn’t prepared to do it.
“So she began to fuss,” he said. “She told me that I was not doing a thing but lying. I told her I did not have to lie. She asked me was I going to love her and I kissed her and hugged her…. She even unbuttoned my overalls for me and we got into bed. And when I started to get up I told her I wanted some money. She got angry again and began to raise sam. She said that I was taking her money, me and my Negro whores having a big time. But she went on in the back room and got me $5.50. It was $4 in bills, $1.50 in halves.”
The rest of the statement was repetitive, so it may be that McGee wrote it down twice. But there were a few new tidbits: He claimed there were three “Negro witnesses” who saw him and Mrs. Hawkins at a roadhouse one night, and that his wife found and tore up a picture of her that he secretly kept at home. In all, he estimated, they had sex “over a dozen times.”
McGee never spelled out the cause-and-effect of why his failure to murder Troy led to his arrest. He didn’t seem to be sure, but said Mrs. Hawkins had told him once that “you are going to do what I say or something is going to happen to you bad.”
“I didn’t know just what happened after I left,” he wrote. “I don’t know whether [Troy] heard me or she told him or not….
“She tried to force me to kill Mr. H.,” he reiterated. “She seem that she was plum insane. She told me she did not care anything about him any more…. In the beginning she told me to never tell no one about our plans. I tried everything to get rid of her but she being white lady I had to do what she said…. She told me that I was the one who got her in pregnancy. She kept me worried at all times.”
Dixon Pyles doesn’t get much stage time in existing accounts of the McGee case. Writers like Carl Rowan and Jessica Mitford tended to skip details of the circuit-court trials in favor of higher-profile years like 1950 and 1951, when the verdict was under appeal and Bella Abzug was overseeing the defense.
More recently, Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown covers the three trials in a single paragraph and doesn’t mention Pyles at all. Dray, by necessity, had to compress the story—his book is a complicated narrative that touches on dozens of lynching and legal lynching cases—but it’s a shame Pyles didn’t make the cut. Dray writes that “the CRC” raised the issue of race-based jury exclusion in the second trial, which is true but incomplete. It was Pyles who did that, and it required grilling a cavalcade of county officials about fraudulent voting-rights practices that were integral to the Jim Crow system. In the process, he helped force a historic, unpopular change in Mississippi jury selection that came about in 1948, at the start of McGee’s third trial.
When Pyles does come up, the reviews aren’t always kind. Abzug seemed to like him—in an interview done nearly fifty years later, she remembered him as “a decent guy, a labor lawyer”—but others have assumed he was a lightweight, a shyster, or a one-dimensional bigot who, like Boyd and Koch, didn’t care enough about McGee to give the case his best. In a letter sent to the CRC’s Milton Kemnitz two weeks before the second-trial preliminaries in Laurel, Laurent Frantz—a CRC staffer from Tennessee who was involved in the case—said Pyles wasn’t up to the job, calling him “inexperienced in this sort of work” and saying he lacked “an adequate theoretical foundation to find his own way in it….”
In Communist Front?, Gerald Horne’s 1988 history of the Civil Rights Congress, Horne concluded that Pyles’s use of “nigger” proved he was a racist whose heart wasn’t in it. Later, he thumped him again while discussing another Mississippi case Pyles handled for the CRC in 1947—a tricky one that involved members of an African-American family named Craft, who fired on four law enforcement officers as they approached the family’s home in rural Smith County, apparently thinking they were part of a lynch mob.
“As had happened in many of their other cases in the South, CRC had incredible difficulties with local counsel, this time the familiar Dixon Pyles,” Horne wrote. “By early in 1947 they had already paid him $2,130 and had agreed to pay him $3,000 more.”
That’s phrased to sound like price-gouging, but Pyles never pretended he took these cases to be charitable. As for his word choice, it’s offensive now and it was offensive then, but that’s the way white people often talked in the 1940s. A better-known transgressor was President Truman, who in 1945 referred to Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell as “that damn nigger preacher” during a White House staff meeting.
Pyles was an establishment figure in a segregated society, so his views on race and society wouldn’t resemble today’s norms. But he was also a lawyer who’d taken an oath, and every indication is that he did the best he could with the tools he had. The CRC’s leaders must have agreed, because after the second trial they hired him to help write the second appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court. They also pleaded with him to stay on the job when the third trial approached.
Finally, Frantz’s point about Pyles’s “theoretical foundation” raises a question of its own: Which theory would equip you to walk into a courtroom where the men inside would rather kill your client than look at him? Though it wasn’t reported at the time, it was stated convincingly in later interviews and appeal documents that Troy Hawkins was caught sneaking a pistol into court, and that he said he was prepared to shoot McGee or his lawyers if he didn’t like what he heard.
What the job required, as much as anything, was courage, and Pyles had plenty of that. Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, he graduated from Central High School in Jackson and attended Millsaps College, also in Jackson, from 1930 to 1933. Standing five feet three inches tall and weighing 150 pounds, he was compact, physically strong, and mulishly determined. His mother and stepfather moved away from Jackson when he was sixteen, but he stayed behind, living in a boardinghouse and working to support himself. The summer after graduating from Millsaps, in a typical adventure, he headed off to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where he earned money by pulling fairgoers around in a rickshaw.
“He had broad shoulders and was built like a fireplug,” says his son, Todd. “He had what you call ‘short-man attitude.’ He had a friend named Weaver Ellis Gore III, who used to say that if he could just get Dixon’s vote, it would be unanimous that Dixon was a son of a bitch.”
After the World’s Fair, Pyles went back to Jackson, where he started out in journalism. He got a job writing for the Clarion-Ledger, which led to a job on radio station WJDX, where he became what he proudly called “the first radio news commentator in Mississippi.” He’d met Bilbo as a high-school student, came to know him better during his newsman days, and traveled to Washington in the mid-1930s to ask for a Mississippi-based job with the Federal Housing Authority, which he got. Later, he bounced around in short-term posts in Louisiana and Mississippi and contributed unsigned writing for Mississippi: The WPA Guide to the Magnolia State, reporting on subjects like the Gulf Coast shrimp-fishing industry.
Pyles entered law school in Jackson in 1937 and opened his practice in early 1940. One of his first clients was a famous central Mississippi gambler and bootlegger named Dewey Swor, who was still a public scourge as late as 1948, when he was arrested for numerous bookmaking violations. Pyles said Swor put him on retainer mainly because he didn’t drink. “He told me, ‘Jackson has some good lawyers, criminal lawyers particularly, but when it gets dark they all get drunk,’” he said. “‘If they get arrested and put in jail, I cannot depend on those that I have on my payroll.’”
Pyles went into the army in 1942 and became a gunner in an antiaircraft artillery battalion, part of the Sixth Armored Division of the Third Army under General George Patton, which punched its way through some of the worst campaigns in Europe. He took part in major battles in Normandy, the Rhineland, and the Ardennes, commanding a half-track with two 37 mm antiaircraft guns mounted on a turret in the center of the bed.
“When I was growing up,” Todd told me, “we had a .45-caliber service weapon that had Plexiglas in place of the usual brown handles, with a family photograph mounted behind the glass. My dad personally shot down an ME-109”—a Messerschmitt Bf-109, the workhorse fighter plane of the Luftwaffe—“and went over and took a souvenir, which was the glass out of the cockpit.”
Todd makes it clear, in his funny, rueful way, that Dixon could be a rough parent, but that didn’t negate his admiration. “He is still my hero,” he said. “You must understand that. He was not sweet and kind. He had a tendency to piss people off. Hell, he used to win cases by pissing people off. He’d get his witnesses up there and ask smart-ass questions until they lost their temper.”
Todd is well aware of Dixon’s role in the McGee case, which he calls “an extraordinary act of courage in enemy territory.” He thinks he took it on for a combination of reasons. One being that, yes, he needed the work. But another was genuine conviction. “He was a progressive who really did care about the little guy,” Todd said. But there was something more elemental at work too: “He just didn’t like anybody telling him what to do.”
Like Laurel, Hattiesburg was a small city that owed its existence to the nineteenth-century timber boom. It wasn’t incorporated until 1884, but it had become a busy place by the 1940s, a crossroads of highways, railroads, and manufacturing nicknamed Hub City. Hattiesburg’s numbers had swollen a bit during World War II, thanks to Camp Shelby, a huge army base southeast of town, but Shelby was downsized after the war ended. Another notable institution was Mississippi Southern College, a former teacher training school that was still a few years away from a period of growth and construction that would later turn it into a sizable campus.
The Forrest County Courthouse was similar to Laurel’s—a big, brick-clad building at the edge of the downtown business district, with a Confederate soldier out front, standing guard on top of a pillar. From Pyles’s perspective, the two locations weren’t any different. He’d hoped to get as far away from Laurel as he could, to a north Mississippi town like Tupelo. Instead, he would have to present his case before the same judge, Burkitt Collins, and McGee’s fate would be decided by an all-white, all-male jury that was certain to have unforgiving opinions about black men putting their hands on white women. Mrs. Hawkins wasn’t a local, but there were local connections to the case. McGee had been arrested in Hattiesburg, and Mrs. Hawkins spent ten days there in a hospital. She also had a sister, LaVera Hooks, who lived in town.
Not surprisingly, McGee—who was jailed in Hattiesburg for the trial’s duration—was still in a state of great personal distress. He looked terrified whenever he had to enter the courtroom, and he continued to say nothing. “[H]e was crazy at the time we tried [the case],” Dan Breland told Spivak, the Daily Worker’s investigator. “He didn’t open his mouth…. Never did get a word out of him. Not one word.”
Pyles pursued three lines of defense, in all instances looking past the trial and toward what he assumed would be a second appeal. First, unlike Boyd and Koch, he tried to put meat on the insanity plea. Step one was to get McGee examined by a qualified psychiatrist. During proceedings held in Laurel before the venue shift, he told Judge Collins that every psychiatrist in Mississippi—all of whom were employed by the state mental hospital in Jackson—had refused to examine his client. So he called on a psychologist from the capital named N. B. Bond, who performed hurry-up jailhouse examinations and concluded that McGee had the mind of “a normal eight-year-old child.” Pyles wanted to get a second opinion from a psychiatrist in New Orleans, a Dr. Charles E. Holbrook, but Holbrook told him he wouldn’t be available for three or four days. Could he have that much time?
Collins ruled that this was too long; the court couldn’t recess “while the defense was out fishing for witnesses.” Later, both sides agreed that insanity arguments would be presented during direct testimony, not at a separate hearing.
In another move, Pyles said he had been told that Willie had tried to enlist in the army but was taken out of training because his mind was shot. He’d called around and had been “advised upon reliable information” that McGee had served in the army briefly—he didn’t say when or where—and had been put in “a ward set aside for the observation of mentally deficient patients” before being discharged. Specifically, Pyles said, “records will show that the defendant is suffering from syphilis of the brain.” He asked for additional time and the court’s assistance to obtain the army records. This too was denied.
Most of Pyles’s effort went into a challenge of the jury-selection systems in Jones and Forrest counties, which, like those in every other Mississippi county, were designed to exclude African Americans from serving. The issues he raised had come up, with strikingly similar details, in Alabama in 1933, during the second set of circuit-court trials involving the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine black males—most of them teenagers—who’d been accused of raping two white women on a freight train. Their lawyers asked the court to quash the indictment based on the systematic exclusion of blacks from juries. The judge refused and the state supreme court upheld him, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the verdicts, saying the county’s reasons for exclusion—basically, that it happened because there weren’t any blacks with sufficient judgment or qualifications to serve—wouldn’t wash.
That was Alabama in the 1930s. By 1946, jury exclusion was still the rule in Mississippi, though it was under assault there as well. Pyles may have known that the same questions were already before the state supreme court in a case called Patton v. Mississippi, an appeal of a murder conviction of a black defendant in Meridian, a railroad town sixty miles northeast of Laurel. Either way, he knew that, to lodge a successful appeal, he and Breland had to get it on the record that blacks were kept off juries in Laurel and Hattiesburg—and why.
To do this, they put one official after another on the stand, including circuit clerks, members of the county boards of supervisors (whose job it was to place names of potential jurors in the jury box), and other city officials involved in compiling jury lists. All agreed that they’d never seen a black serve on a grand or petit jury during their combined decades of public service. Luther Hill, the Jones County sheriff, was asked whether, at any time during a career that stretched back forty-six years, he had served a jury summons on an African American. “I don’t remember that I did,” he said.
Generally, the reasons given had to do with raw statistics. To serve on a jury, you had to be a registered voter, and there weren’t many registered blacks. With a straight face, the officials said this was just the way things had worked out, and that no pressure was applied to keep blacks from registering. And if they did happen to be registered and were called? They voluntarily elected not to serve.
During questioning by District Attorney Homer Pittman, Bill Hosey, a former Laurel mayor and Jones County prosecutor, insisted that the names of black voters were sometimes drawn from the jury box, but these men declined to take part of their own free will.
“We have always had in this county about 35 to 50 negroes that were qualified electors,” he said. “They were the better class of Negroes and when they were drawn for jury service…they would ask to be excused.” Why was that? Because they were “of that class of intelligent Negroes that didn’t want to appear as a juror in court.”
That was double-talk, and Hosey seemed to be enjoying his time on the stand. Under cross-examination by Pyles, he boasted that, in his experience, white jurors often went easier on black criminals than on white criminals—one of those surprising facts of Southern life that they didn’t tell you about up north. “I have had more Negro defendants turned aloose, that is, acquitted, in my eight years as prosecutor, by white jurors than I have white defendants acquitted,” he said.
“Did you ever have any white defendants turned aloose by negro jurors in your eight years of office?” Pyles asked.
“No, sir,” Hosey said, “and I would rather not answer that question, because I thought my forefathers settled that question in Jasper County in 1876 with a negro sheriff when they stole—”
This caused a commotion, and it was never explained what happened to the negro sheriff. Collins banged his gavel and excused Hosey. Though he let Pyles keep going—asking the same questions of Forrest County officials—he’d already made up his mind.
“[T]here isn’t a scintilla of testimony offered by the defendant in this case to show that there was any legal fraud in drawing jurors for Forrest County, either actual or legal,” he said at the end. “[T]he testimony shows that they were drawn by the Board of Supervisors as contemplated by law….” He overruled both motions to quash the jury panels.
“Note our exception,” Pyles said. He would have more to say on the subject later.
The last chore was jury selection, a process of questioning and winnowing that was limited by a simple fact: No matter how deep you went into the pool, the candidates weren’t going to change much. No women. No blacks. Just white males who were primarily blue-collar. Among the potential jurors at the start, there was a postal clerk, a woodworker, a student at Southern, an auto mechanic, a piano repairman, a farmer, a pulp-mill machinist, and a truck driver. Almost to a man, they said they could listen to the case and make up their minds without prejudice against McGee.
Pyles didn’t believe it, but he’d had his say about the jury’s makeup. He rejected a few candidates—as did Judge Collins—but he didn’t seem interested in a long selection battle. Three men were excused because they said they’d already decided McGee was guilty; two because they were over sixty; and one because he opposed the death penalty.
“I have been thinking, sitting here studying about that,” this man said, “and I would hate—I’m not trying to shirk my duty, but…I would hate to bring in any verdict that takes a man’s life.” That was enough to get him bounced. The jurors had to set the sentence, and they had to be open to one of three possible outcomes: innocent, guilty with a penalty of life in prison, and guilty with a penalty of death.
Direct testimony began on November 11, a Monday. The prosecution, led by Homer Pittman, presented the same case as before, with a few variations and in more detail. They put Willette on the stand first, and she repeated the story she’d told in December 1945. Lying in bed with her infant daughter, she’d heard something crawling on the floor, reached out in the dark, and felt “a human being…. I felt along and finally got up on his head and there was that old, the kinkiest hair I have ever felt…. I asked him, ‘What do you want? Go away. Why did you come here?’”
Mrs. Hawkins said she called out to her husband but knew he wouldn’t hear her because he was in the back and was a heavy sleeper. (“He has changed now,” she said.) She told the attacker she was men-struating, but said he didn’t care, and that he ordered her to “get them goddamned rags off, and them goddamned britches off.” She said she could smell him (“like old beer”) but couldn’t see him. The rapist said that if she didn’t shut up and give him what he wanted, he would start killing people. “All the time I was trying to protect the baby with one hand and trying to shove him away with the other hand,” she testified.
Pyles was aggressive when he cross-examined Mrs. Hawkins, starting on Monday afternoon. This session was long and emotional—she was already drained from revisiting the crime, and Pyles kept her on the stand for three hours. “The witness faltered several times in telling her story,” the Hattiesburg American reported, “and then, during the cross-examination by defense attorney Dixon Pyles, became so visibly upset that Judge Burkitt Collins ordered court recessed shortly after 5 p.m.”
Pyles had decided to make Mrs. Hawkins the centerpiece of his third courtroom strategy. In a move that would cause confusion in the years ahead, he pursued the idea that she had legally “consented” to having sex with McGee. But this had nothing to do with the love-affair story. It was about her failure to scream loud enough or fight hard enough during the rape. According to a motion introduced by the defense, this failure tended to “raise a presumption that no rape was committed upon her….” Why? Because Mississippi law said that if a rape victim didn’t fight as hard as she could during an assault, what happened technically wasn’t a rape.
Breland, during his interview with Spivak, talked about why Pyles went down this road. “She testified that she said…‘Oh. All right. If that’s all I can do it.’ You’ll find in that first [trial] record…that she testified that she didn’t holler because she didn’t want to arouse her children—didn’t want to wake her children up. That…shows that he didn’t rape her, by her own testimony.”
It was a weak argument—Mrs. Hawkins thought the rapist was going to kill her and her family, a state of mind that would seem to constitute “fear”—but Pyles hammered away, obviously planning to bring the matter up on appeal.
“What did you say when you screamed?” he asked her.
“I said, ‘What do you want?’”
“I believe that you testified under oath at the former trial that after he told you what he wanted, you said, ‘Well, if that is all, I can take it.’”
“That is a lie. No, I didn’t, not in my right mind.”
“…I will ask you if, at a former trial, you did not testify, ‘I called him, not loud, because I did not want to wake the children up in the next room, as I didn’t know but what he had already killed Troy. And when I called Troy, he said, ‘He is back there asleep, Miss,’ and then you said he told you what he came for. And you said, ‘Well, if that’s all I can take it.’”
“I don’t remember that I did,” she said.
As the trial went on, Pyles did what he could to attack the prosecution’s case. He argued that the testimony placing a Laurel Wholesale Grocery truck near the scene of the crime at the right hour—and McGee along with it—was purely circumstantial. Did Paul Britton see a truck roll by his service station at 5 a.m.? So what? He didn’t see the driver. Did Rose Imbragulio see a truck on the street that “looked like Wholesale Grocery” to her? Fine, but she didn’t clearly see anybody inside it. The prosecution didn’t bother denying that none of the witnesses or the victim could identify McGee by sight, and that there was no physical evidence proving that he was the rapist.
Dr. Grady Cook testified again, saying he’d examined Mrs. Hawkins at his clinic in Hattiesburg, had found “living spermatozoa,” but had no way of knowing whose cells they were. Mrs. Lonnie Meador, the Jones County circuit clerk, produced the bloodstained boxer shorts again, which had been stored in a file cabinet inside a vault. But by now the bloodstains were gone. During cross-examination, Pyles held up the shorts and asked Police Chief Wayne Valentine to show him where the stain had been.
Valentine pointed to the spot, acknowledging that nothing was visible anymore. Pyles asked if “ten or eleven months” was enough time for a bloodstain to go away on its own. Valentine didn’t know. Did the chief order an analysis of the clothes to determine that the stain was actually a bloodstain? He hadn’t.
Pyles also argued that McGee’s alleged confession, which he reportedly gave of his own volition, was tainted, because McGee had no counsel present and was terrified about what might happen to him.
“Chief, did you have him handcuffed?” he said.
“And there was about six or eight men around him in the city jail in Hattiesburg?”
“I imagine there were that many.”
“And all of you had guns.”
Pyles made a motion to exclude the confession, partly on the grounds that McGee “was told in the presence of officers with guns on that it would be best for him to tell the truth.”
Collins overruled. Questioned by the prosecution, Valentine described how he had driven McGee to Magnolia Street in Laurel and asked him, “Willie, what was your truck doing on South Magnolia Street?” McGee said he’d had a breakdown in front of a stucco house and that it had taken a while to get it running again.
“Up until that time, Chief, had you said one word to Willie about him raping anybody?”
“Well, I had talked to him on the way up there about where he had been the night before and what he had done,” Valentine said. “And after I had talked to him about this truck being broke down, I asked him about going in this house of the Hawkins up there, and then he set there awhile. And after a while he said, Yes, he did go in it, and then as we went up the street, I asked him to show me where the truck was broke down, and…he showed me…and then I says, ‘Willie, show me the house that you went in.’ And we went up the street about a block further and he pointed over to the Hawkins home and the one next door and he said, ‘One of those two houses right there.’”
“Chief, did he or not tell you then and there that he had committed this rape?”
“He did.” Valentine said he’d asked McGee how he got in the house. McGee said he went in the front door, took a right, and entered Mrs. Hawkins’s bedroom.
After several other witnesses were heard from, mostly law enforcement officials, the prosecution closed with testimony about McGee’s alleged jailbreak in Hinds County and his mental condition. C. M. Herring, the jailer who was beaten up, said he had thought McGee was probably insane—right up until the moment he bashed him on the head with an iron bar. Allen Boutwell, deputy sheriff of Jones County, said he saw McGee react with a smile when Judge Stennis called him to the bench and told him he was transferring the case. A Forrest County deputy sheriff testified that, during his most recent jail stay, McGee knew what was going on around him and recognized his mother when she visited.
“He talked to her in my presence,” he said. “While with her, he led a singing session.”
“I will ask you whether or not Willie can sing.”
“He certainly can. Sang like a full-grown man.”
When the defense’s turn came, Pyles called McGee as his second witness, but McGee didn’t budge from his chair. Court officers carried him to the stand, where he crouched and quivered and said nothing.
“The records show we had the sheriff sit him on the stand bodily,” Breland explained to Spivak. “He didn’t have sense enough to sit up—to put his feet on the stand. We asked him—I asked him several questions. What his name was and such as that. He didn’t answer.” He was excused without having uttered an intelligible word.
Pyles called only a few other witnesses, among them N. B. Bond, who said McGee was incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong, and a Hattiesburg-based photographer named Bob Waller, who took pictures of McGee at the first trial and noticed that his eyes didn’t bulge when the flash went off, which he called “very abnormal.”
Once again, the longest defense testimony came from Bessie McGee, who said Willie had been turned down for army service at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and Fort Benning, Georgia, “on account of his head.” She said he’d been diagnosed with “‘erysipelas’ of the brains” and named a local physician, Dr. Paul Haney, who was giving him shots.
Asked if she thought Willie was insane, she said, “Well, to my idea there’s something ’nother wrong with him, something ailing him. I tried to get him to know me in there while ago, and he wouldn’t have anything to say to me.”
Pyles asked again: Was he sane or insane?
“To my believing about it, I just believe that his mind ain’t—he ain’t at his self. His mind is bad.”
Under questioning from the prosecution, she described what she said to Willie during her jail visits.
Did you talk to him?
I had prayer with him.
Had prayer with him?
Who led the songs?
He led some and I led some….
Willie is a good singer, isn’t he?
Yes, sir, he does pretty good.
And he sang over there in jail, and he sang pretty loud, didn’t he?
And don’t you know he was putting on a bigger show at Laurel than he is putting on down here? (No answer.) When he wants to talk to you, he could talk to you, couldn’t he, Aunty?
I don’t know, sir. I will be frank about that.
In his summary to the jury, Pyles pleaded for mercy. “We don’t ask you to turn Willie loose,” he said. “Send Willie to an institution where he can be guided and do useful work. The defense asks that the jury find Willie not guilty by reasons of insanity.”
The jury found him guilty, this time staying out eleven minutes instead of two and a half. Collins quickly set a new death date: December 20, 1946.