The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
6. THE MALADY OF MEDDLER’S ITCH
In the 1940s, the CRC, the NAACP, the Daily Worker, and African-American newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, and the Atlanta World were often the first or only sources of substantial reporting when an incident like the blinding of Isaac Woodard took place. If these organizations didn’t publicize a story, it might go unnoticed, because mainstream newspapers, in and out of the South, still had a tendency to miss, bury, or ignore such events. Even sympathetic papers didn’t always know what to do with stories about racially motivated atrocities. There were a lot every year. Did you cover them all? If so, how much?
When in doubt, the New York Times would sometimes run a small wire-service dispatch and then not follow up. In July 1946, for example, a black farmer named Leon McAtee was found floating in a lake near Indianola, Mississippi, the victim of a flogging death at the hands of six men who accused him of stealing a saddle. The Times reported McAtee’s murder on page forty-eight, running a United Press story headlined “Negro Death Laid to Mississippians.” Three months later, in a brief follow-up, readers learned that five men, charged with manslaughter, were all acquitted.
For a while, the Woodard case fell through the cracks everywhere. It happened in February 1946, but, amazingly, the NAACP didn’t start publicizing it until July. The national office sent out a press release that month, which generated urgent headlines in African-American papers. “Veteran’s Eyes Gouged Out by Hate-Crazed Dixie Police,” read a Chicago Defender story from July 20. “Atrocity Called Dixie’s Worst In NAACP Probe.”
The Times weighed in, but it never found Woodard’s story quite as compelling. The editors didn’t ignore Woodard, but they did keep the reporting low-key throughout the paper’s coverage of his case in 1946 and 1947. This was typified by one of the early stories the Times published, a brief A.P. dispatch that ran on page thirty and carried the headline, “Negro Made Blind at Batesburg, S.C.”
In various ways, the years after World War II were a time of change on this front. The wave of postwar racial violence was so shocking that it couldn’t be put on the back burner completely, and some stories got prominent play from the start, including the Malcom and Dorsey lynchings in Georgia, which the Times treated as front-page news.
In late 1946, the Times, recognizing that race-based injustice and civil rights were becoming increasingly important, assigned its first full-on Southern correspondent, a reporter based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, named John N. Popham. The idea originated with a transplanted Mississippian, assistant managing editor Turner Catledge. Popham, a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was given the daunting task of covering every Southern state from Virginia to Texas behind the wheel of a car he called the Green Hornet—driving 50,000 miles a year and staying with friends and relatives whenever possible, because the Times needed to keep his traveling expenses low.
“The result was a free-wheeling sort of reporting, with Mr. Popham driving vast distances from friend to friend,” a Times obituary writer explained after Popham’s death in 1999. “He sent out 100 boxes of New Orleans pralines each year at his own expense, and his…network of contacts included old-school connections and distant relatives.”
Popham turned up everywhere over the next few years, and he often wrote stories set in Mississippi. He was in Jackson in early 1947 when state officials were busily trying to come up with new ways to prevent blacks from voting in the Democratic primary. He was there in 1948 when the city hosted disgruntled politicians and voters who organized a revolt against the pro–civil rights drift of the national Democratic Party. And he was there when the McGee case started getting noticed nationally in 1950. In fact, Popham’s journalism helped make that happen, spreading the word beyond the confines of the far left. Through his reports, the Times legitimized McGee in a way that coverage in the Daily Worker, by itself, never could have.
Another important change in 1946 took place in the heart and mind of the nation’s prime political mover, President Harry S. Truman, who surprised everybody by announcing his intention to push for federal civil rights legislation. That was one crusade neither FDR nor Congress had gotten around to.
Off and on for years, Congress had tried and failed to pass a federal anti-lynching bill, which sometimes made it out of the House of Representatives but always died under the weight of Southern filibusters in the Senate. FDR never publicly supported any of these bills, despite pressure from the NAACP and from Eleanor Roosevelt, who threw everything she had into getting him to back one of the best known of them, the Costigan-Wagner bill of 1934.
Costigan-Wagner was introduced after a resurgent year for lynching in 1933—there were at least twenty-eight nationwide, including one just ninety miles east of the White House, in Princess Anne, Maryland. The bill would have given the federal government authority to bring charges against local law enforcement officials who handed prisoners over to lynch mobs, and to sue counties for damages that would be awarded to victims’ families.
Southern legislators were opposed, arguing that lynching was a matter for local and state law enforcement to deal with. Yes, there were times when the system failed and men were mobbed, but Southerners claimed that, as the years went by, they would put an end to the problem themselves. Congressmen like Mississippi’s William Colmer, who fought against similar bills over the years, also argued that any such measure had to be universally applied. So he introduced a “gangster amendment,” which mandated federal intrusion if police in places like New York and Chicago failed to adequately investigate gangland slayings.
With Costigan-Wagner and other bills like it, Eleanor worked closely with Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, who knew the subject of lynching as well as anybody, thanks in part to his unusual physical appearance. Originally from Atlanta, White was of mixed-race descent, and he was light-skinned enough that he was usually assumed to be Caucasian. In a 1948 profile, the New Yorker described him as “a dapper, pink-cheeked, and polished man of fifty-five who is so non-Negroid in appearance and on such good terms with high-level statesmen that anyone meeting him for the first time at a Washington cocktail party could easily take him for some thoroughly Anglo-Saxon ambassador.”
White’s features had made it possible for him to work as an on-the-scene lynching investigator for the NAACP, starting in 1918. Over the next seven years, he traveled thousands of miles, risking his life as he gathered information on roughly fifty lynchings and violent race-oriented riots. In 1929, he published Rope and Faggot, an influential study of the history and causes of lynching in the United States.
By April 1934, White had reason to hope that Costigan-Wagner could pass. It had been endorsed by prominent officials, clergymen, journalists, and nonpartisan advocacy groups, and his head count indicated that the bill might make it out of the Senate if it were spared the usual Southern windbag offensive and put to a vote. Knowing that a public endorsement or private arm-twisting by FDR might tip the balance, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a Sunday afternoon meeting in May that included the president, his mother, herself, and White. FDR seemed to take it in stride that his wife and mother were lined up against him on this issue, and White left feeling convinced that he’d swayed him. But the president did nothing, and the bill died yet again. Later, FDR told White that he couldn’t risk alienating his Southern power base.
“The Southerners by reason of the seniority rule…are chairmen or occupy strategic places on most of the House and Senate Committees,” he said. “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that risk.”
The risk was just as great for Truman. He could have lost the presidency in 1948 as a result of flouting the South’s will on civil rights, and for a time it looked like he would. But he decided he had to move forward, and the bloody events of 1946 were a major reason why. Truman heard about them during face-to-face meetings with two prominent representatives of the mid-century civil rights movement.
One was a man he believed he could do business with, Walter White. The other was Paul Robeson, the famous ex-athlete, actor, singer, and Communist sympathizer who by then had become one of the most caustic voices on the left. Truman’s meeting with Robeson was a disaster, producing nothing but tension and ill will, and it solidified boundaries that would be in place four years later, when Truman was compelled to start responding to public clamor about the McGee case. By then, Robeson—a CRC member and spokesman—was one of McGee’s top supporters. From Truman’s perspective, this meant McGee was backed by the wrong kinds of people.
Truman met with White first, on September 19 at the White House, along with a delegation that included six officials representing labor, churches, and the African-American press. White wrote about the meeting in a syndicated column that ran in African-American newspapers, reporting that Truman was visibly stunned when they talked about Woodard’s blinding and the 1946 wave of lynchings.
“…Truman’s face became pale with horror,” White wrote. “His voice trembled with deep emotion as he assured us that steps must be taken immediately to stop this wave of terrorism before it got out of hand.”
The next day, in a memo to Attorney General Thomas C. Clark, Truman wrote that his callers “told me about an incident which happened in South Carolina where a negro Sergeant, who had been discharged from the Army just three hours, was taken off the bus and not only seriously beaten but his eyes deliberately put out, and that the Mayor of the town had bragged about committing this outrage….
“I know you have been looking into the…Georgia lynchings, and also been investigating the one in Louisiana, but I think it is going to take something more than the handling of each individual case after it happens—it is going to require the inauguration of some sort of policy to prevent such happenings.”
Four days later, Truman met with Robeson, who was in Washington to lead a protest rally that had been advertised for several weeks in the Daily Worker. Conceived by Robeson, the legendary black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, and a white Washington lawyer named Bartley Crum, the event was billed as “an American crusade to end lynching.” Held on September 23, it was timed to take place near the anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, on September 22.
Truman might have been receptive, but Robeson seemed more interested in grandstanding than communicating. Before coming down from New York, he delivered a speech at Madison Square Garden in which he criticized the president for the federal government’s inability or unwillingness to do anything about lynching.
“This swelling wave of lynch murders and mob assaults…represents the ultimate limit of bestial brutality to which the enemies of democracy, be they German-Nazis or American Ku Kluxers, are ready to go in imposing their will,” Robeson boomed. “Are we going to give our America over to the Eastlands, Rankins and Bilbos? If not, then stop the lynchers! What about it, President Truman? Why have you failed to speak out against this evil?”
At the White House, Robeson led a seven-person delegation that included Mrs. Harper Sibley, whose husband was a former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During their meeting with Truman, the conversation turned prickly in a hurry. “Mrs. Sibley was the first to nettle him,” said a report in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “‘Discrimination against the Negroes in this country,’ she said, ‘is just as bad as the racism of Nazi Europe. We’re trying people in Nuremberg for war crimes; but if we really consider them guilty, Mr. President, we should consider those in this country who lynch Negroes are equally guilty.’”
Truman said the two situations weren’t the same, displaying ignorance about the nature of mob violence when he added, “We realize, and you must realize, that it is [the Nazis’] philosophy which has infected a few people in this country and is largely responsible for lynchings.”
Robeson lectured him along the same lines as Sibley, and Truman lectured him back. “You of all people ought to stand behind this country,” he snapped. “The United States and Great Britain are the last refuges of freedom in the world.” Truman may not have known that Robeson—in tune with long standing Communist Party doctrine—regarded Britain as part of the problem, not the solution, an imperial colonizer that oppressed people all over the planet. After Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946—where he issued his warnings about postwar Soviet expansionism—Robeson was the lead signatory on a letter that said British imperialism, propped up by financial support from the United States, was a bigger menace than anything the Soviets were up to. He informed Truman that Britain was “the greatest enslaver of human beings in the world.”
Faced with a choice between White’s centrist calm and Robeson’s thunderclaps, Truman assembled an establishment cast of advisers to help frame his race-relations ideas. On December 5, 1946, he created a Committee on Civil Rights, whose members and staff were charged with holding hearings and doing research that would lead to a major presidential statement about race in America. Most of the fifteen-member group were prominent white males from outside the South. There weren’t any Communists, of course, or anybody from the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.
Today, a presidential study commission might seem like the tamest solution to any subject, but it wasn’t tame back then. Based on the issue of race, Truman found himself with a problem that would influence everything that happened during the election of 1948. Because of his tough-with-the-Soviets line and his tentative moves on civil rights, he now had two sets of dedicated enemies in his own party, coming at him from opposite directions. With the Republicans powering up for their best chance to win the presidency since 1928, it seemed likely that his decision to interfere with the South would mean the end of his career.
Another unfortunate staple of the racial-atrocities beat were incidents in which white men accused of raping black women either weren’t indicted or were set free by a white jury, even when they were clearly guilty. For several weeks in late 1944 and early 1945, the Daily Worker and African-American newspapers publicized the story of Recy Taylor, a twenty-two-year-old black woman from small-town Alabama who was allegedly gang-raped by half a dozen young white males. A grand jury refused to indict them, giving the Worker an irresistible chance to slam everybody involved: the grand jurors, Alabama judges and state officials, and establishment newspapers that failed to report on what had happened.
“The Daily Worker and the Worker are the only newspapers, aside from the Negro press, which have mentioned this case,” one story said. The charge was accurate as far as the New York Times and Washington Post were concerned. Neither paper covered it.
With their nationwide network of activists and contacts, the CRC and the NAACP didn’t miss many of these stories. But in December 1946, just three weeks after McGee’s second guilty verdict, something monstrous happened in Laurel that escaped their notice. The Daily Worker missed it too. Otherwise, the paper surely would have given the news four-alarm treatment, because there was never a better example of the double standard applied to the punishment of black and white defendants in Mississippi rape cases.
At around 6 p.m. on December 6, 1946, a twenty-four-year-old white male named Laverne Yarbrough showed up at a small grocery store in the Queensburg section of town. The store’s owner, F. A. Hendry, didn’t know Yarbrough, but he noticed that he had a bottle of whiskey in his back pocket. Then he closed up for the night and drove home. It was already getting dark; Hendry remembered later that he had to turn on his car headlights to see.
Just down the street, two African-American boys—eleven-year-old Billie Earl Jernigan and twelve-year-old Willie Jones—were playing marbles on the pavement when they saw a man walk past them, leading a small black girl by the hand. They didn’t know who he was, but the girl, who was five, didn’t seem to mind. They noticed that the man was hiding his face with his hat. Then he picked up the girl and took her into a stand of woods, and the boys didn’t see them anymore.
Yarbrough allegedly raped the girl in the woods and ran away, leaving her bloody, terrified, and lost. Her mother had sent her out by herself earlier that day to look for an older sister at a neighborhood store. When her parents realized she was missing, they searched until they found her, hours later, walking alone on a side street, apparently the victim of sexual violence. They took her to the Laurel police department, and she was examined by a doctor that night. The doctor later testified that she was bleeding profusely from lacerations that indicated rape. In a second examination, he took a blood sample.
Local police hit the streets to find witnesses and hunt down the rapist. As they soon learned, various people had seen Yarbrough that afternoon and night, including the owner of a taxi company who said he showed up at his garage around 7:00 or 7:30, trying to get a check cashed. The man reported that Yarbrough had bloodstains on his hands, face, and clothes.
He was arrested at 11 p.m. by Laurel patrolman Jeff Montgomery and Deputy Sheriff Dave Shaw, who nabbed him at a roadside restaurant north of town. They took him to the city jail, where Wayne Valentine ordered him to take off his clothes, just as he’d done with McGee in Hattiesburg in 1945. At Yarbrough’s trial, which happened in March 1947, Valentine would testify that the clothing was spotted with blood.
Convinced they had the right man, the police cut a few corners as they compiled evidence for a case. Notably, blood-test evidence was never introduced—apparently, for Laurel investigators, the visual link of a bloody girl and blood on Yarbrough’s clothing and skin was enough. That night, the two boys, Jernigan and Jones, were brought in to identify the suspect, and the police ran the lineup in a way that any defense attorney would have objected to. First, they told the boys they were going to show them the man who “raped the little girl.” Then they took them inside a room where Yarbrough was sitting by himself. At Yarbrough’s trial, the boys were asked to describe how the procedure worked.
“They didn’t take five or six men and say, ‘Here, son, pick one out and tell me if that’s the man that did it’?” one defense lawyer asked.
“They didn’t do that, did they?…They just brought one man in there, and they had already told you they had the man that raped the little girl, and they wanted you to come up and identify the man that raped the little girl?” The boys said yes, that’s how it had been.
Yarbrough’s court-appointed defense attorney was Jack Deavours, a Laurel fixture who had prosecuted the Ouida Keaton case and who would serve as a special prosecutor during Willie McGee’s third trial. The rape victim was called to the stand, despite Deavours’s objection that she was too young to qualify as a competent witness. With the jury out and the girl standing in front of the witness chair, answering quietly and gesturing, District Attorney Homer Pittman asked, “Where do bad little girls go who tell stories?”
“To the bad man,” she said.
“Where do good little girls go?”
“Apparently frightened, the witness was slow to answer questions propounded by the district attorney,” the Leader-Call reported, “but under his gentle phrasing of the queries she was led to tell of the evening of the alleged attack, and then pointed at Yarbrough when Pittman asked her to show the jury her attacker.”
Deavours objected, noting that Pittman had pointed at Yarbrough three times when the jury was gone, cueing the girl about who “the bad man” was. After being overruled by the judge—McGee’s old nemesis, Burkitt Collins—he didn’t try to cross-examine her.
Court-watchers figured Deavours would use an insanity defense—records showed that Yarbrough had spent time in mental hospitals—but instead he stressed procedural points, which he later used in an unsuccessful appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The evidence was circumstantial, he argued; it was dark when the boys saw the man and the girl; and the police never got the blood sample looked at. The three child witnesses had been coached and the girl’s testimony was vague. All she said was that the man took her into the woods and laid her down.
On the stand, Yarbrough denied committing the rape, after which Deavours asked questions that had only one possible function: to arouse sympathy. “The defendant…told the jury that he was an ex-soldier and was at Pearl Harbor when that place was attacked,” the Leader-Call reported. “He said that immediately following the battle he became highly nervous and was treated for a nervous disorder in several government hospitals before being discharged.” Surprisingly, the tactic failed. After deliberating for two hours, an all-white jury found Yarbrough guilty on March 11, 1947. In another break from the usual pattern, the prosecution asked that the jury give him the death penalty.
It’s possible this was done for show, but it doesn’t sound that way in the trial records and newspaper reports. During his closing argument, County Attorney Albert Easterling clutched his lapels, raised his voice, and delivered a speech demanding that Yarbrough be electrocuted. Pointing at Yarbrough’s wife, who was sitting beside him at the defense table with one of their children, Easterling said this family tableau was staged to generate pity that Yarbrough didn’t deserve.
“Easterling turned toward the accused man during his plea to hurl scorching and scathing denunciations which reverberated…through the courtroom,” the Leader-Call reported. “‘Oh, yes, Yarbrough,’ he thundered, ‘you’ve got your little wife and baby with you today—but where were they on last December 6—where were they when you took that little negro girl into the woods and raped her?”
The jurors were sufficiently appalled to find Yarbrough guilty, but they would only go so far. Whether they were motivated by doubts about his sanity, a racist belief that a white man should never be executed for raping a black female—even a child—or something else, they opted for a sentence of life in prison. Unlike McGee, Laverne Yarbrough would be spared.
In 1947, McGee wasn’t on anybody’s list of newsmakers. The second-trial verdict was reported in postage-stamp-sized articles here and there, including PM, the liberal New York–based paper edited by Ralph Ingersoll and funded by Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III. The Times either didn’t hear about McGee or wasn’t interested, because it didn’t publish anything.
He was driven back to jail in Hinds County, and nothing more was heard from him for the next fifteen months. Later, there would be jailhouse letters—written by him and widely publicized by the CRC—but those didn’t start arriving until 1948, and there were only a smattering until 1950, when he began to write often. For a long time, his mother, Bessie, was the sole public voice of the case, and what she mainly did was send letters to the CRC, which the group sometimes used in press releases. From her home on Elm Street in Laurel, she politely beseeched them never to forget her boy.
“Just a few lines to let you hear from me,” she wrote on December 9, 1946. “[T]his leaves me doing very well at this time and hope that you are the same. My son Willie he is sintuns again to the chair. But he got a apeal and I do want you all to do all you all can for him.”
Several months later, in July 1947, she mentioned a new figure in Willie’s life, a woman who evidently had been visiting him in jail: “I got a letter from Rosa and she say Willie was Better I sure was glad to hear that.” This is the earliest surviving reference I found to the existence of Rosalee McGee in connection with Willie.
Dixon Pyles and Dan Breland filed a notice of appeal ten days after the verdict, but they didn’t submit it until August 6, 1947. It was a fat document of 157 pages, a fourth of them summarizing the second-trial testimony, which at times boiled down in a strangely flat way.
WILLIE MCGEE (Tr. Vol. II, P. 417–419)
The appellant was placed on the stand. He was bodily carried by sheriff’s deputies. His head was held down and he had a wild expression in his eyes…. [T]he appellant did not answer a single question, nor did he make any response except peculiar noises.
Pyles raised six points. The first would turn out to be the most significant: that McGee was deprived of his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection because of race-based jury exclusion. He also pushed the insanity argument; said McGee should have been granted a change of venue to someplace far away; challenged the legitimacy of his confession; and went into great detail on the “consent” angle, arguing that Mrs. Hawkins’s failure to fight back meant that the sex was not against her will.
That was a hopeless line of attack, certain to offend any Mississippi judge who looked at it. Here and there, Pyles thought better of a particular phrase and drew a line through it, as in this passage: “The record reveals that the prosecutrix is a rather tall woman and at the time was 32 years old, in full possession of her mental faculties, and of normal strength.” Elsewhere, he pointed out that she was half an inch taller than her attacker, not mentioning her wispy build.
The state’s response was short and simple: Read the transcript. Mrs. Hawkins submitted to McGee because she’d been overpowered and threatened with death. “The sordid and revolting details of this crime will not be set out,” wrote Greek L. Rice, Mississippi’s assistant attorney general, “but a reading of the testimony of Mrs. Troy C. Hawkins, prosecutrix…fully establishes the crime of rape.”
In 1947, the case that grabbed the headlines happened 500 miles away from Laurel—in Greenville, South Carolina, a textile-manufacturing city in the northern part of the state. It centered on a lynching that, this time, was not overlooked by major newspapers. The Times treated it as important news from the start, sending John Popham to cover it when the accused lynchers went on trial in May.
The Greenville case stood out for a couple of reasons. One was that local law enforcement, aided by state officials and FBI agents, mounted an aggressive investigation that led to multiple arrests, confessions, and indictments. Another was the staggering numbers involved: Thirty-one men eventually went to trial. The defendants were blue-collar Greenville men—almost all of them taxicab drivers—who were accused of seizing, beating, stabbing, and shooting a twenty-four-year-old African-American murder suspect named Willie Earle. It was, and would remain, the largest lynching trial in U.S. history.
The incident started on the night of February 15, 1947, a Saturday, when a middle-aged Yellow Cab driver named Thomas Watson Brown was robbed and stabbed on the job. Company dispatchers said Brown had picked up two “negro fares” that night, and that nothing more was heard from him until he was found around 10 p.m., still alive and lying on a roadside near the town of Liberty. (Brown survived until just before noon on Monday.) Pickens County sheriff Waymond Mauldin said he suspected Earle because investigators found tracks and identifiable heel prints leading from the cab to the spot where Brown lay, and from there to the home of Earle’s mother, about a mile from the crime scene. Earle was arrested on Sunday, allegedly in possession of a bloodstained pocketknife.
Whether Earle did it or not quickly became moot. He was taken for safekeeping to the county jail at Pickens, a small town twenty miles west of Greenville. The jail was an old and vulnerable structure manned by a sixty-two-year-old turnkey named J. Ed Gilstrap, who lived there with his wife and daughter. Before dawn on the 17th, a mob of at least three dozen men—most of them traveling in taxis—drove to Pickens and demanded that Gilstrap hand Earle over. He didn’t resist, saying later, “They had shotguns and I danced to their music.” He said he didn’t recognize any members of the lynch party.
Earle’s body was found in the country on Monday morning, laid out on frosty ground near a livestock pen. He’d been brutalized before being killed with a shotgun blast to the head. “The tissue of Willie Earle’s brain was left hanging on the bushes,” said a report in Time. “The lynchers went back to Greenville and drank coffee.”
The lynching caused a furor in South Carolina and beyond. The state’s new governor, Strom Thurmond, a World War II veteran and former judge who’d been in office less than a month, sent a state constable to Greenville County to investigate and issued a statement promising justice. “Such offenses against decency, law and the Democratic way of living will not be tolerated by the law abiding citizens of this state,” he said. “Mob rule is against every principle for which we have so recently sacrificed so much, and we expect to combat it with the same determination.”
At the White House, Thurmond’s action was noted approvingly as a sign that Truman’s statements about race were having an effect. “The President may be interested to see how his Civil Rights Committee is taking him off the hot seat,” David K. Niles wrote in a memo. “Day before yesterday there was this brutal lynching in South Carolina. They immediately moved in on it.”
FBI agents were sent in to aid locals in the roundup and questioning of some 200 suspects and potential sources. Twenty-six men signed confessions, and several identified a man named Roosevelt Carlos Hurd Sr., a forty-five-year-old cab driver, as the person who finished Earle off. He denied it, saying he “heard” guns being fired but didn’t have one himself. “When I seen they were going to kill the Negro, I just turned around, because I did not want to see it happen,” he said.
Despite the usual complaining about federal involvement in anything, Thurmond got good reviews in many Southern newspapers, though these often carried an antifederal undercurrent that foreshadowed problems at the trial. “The law is on its throne in Greenville County, South Carolina,” said an editorial in the Atlanta Journal. “Something is being done about a lynching. This fact is worth many thousands of words of argument in Congress against a federal anti-lynching statute.”
The trial started on May 12, drawing reporters from all over the country, including African-American journalists and correspondents with the wire services. Life was there. So was the New Yorker, which sent Rebecca West, a British writer known for her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a classic travelogue about life in the Balkans before World War II. West had seen plenty of rough stuff in her day—she covered the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker—but the Greenville trial got under her skin. During closing arguments at the eight-day proceeding, she listened as defense attorney John Bolt Culbertson flatly stated that Earle got what he deserved. He’d murdered a white man, and whether he died vigilante-style or at the state’s hands, he had to go. “Willie Earle is dead,” he declared, “and I wish more like him was dead.”
“There was a delighted, giggling, almost coquettish response from the defendants and some of the spectators,” West wrote. “…A more disgusting incident could not have happened in any court of law in any time.”
The judge, a former Washington and Lee football player named James Robert Martin Jr., wanted convictions and had good reason to expect them, since so many men had confessed. But the defense lawyers planted the idea that the confessions were unethically procured with “Trojan horse” trickery by the FBI agents, many of whom were Southerners. (Supposedly, they’d told the defendants they would never be convicted by a white jury, so why not talk?) Martin ruled that each man’s confession could be used against him but not against the other defendants as part of a conspiracy charge. He dismissed the charges against some defendants and reduced the charges against others, leaving the total on trial for murder or conspiracy at twenty-eight.
Since nobody denied that Earle had been lynched, the defense’s case rested on appealing to the jury’s belief that the killing was justified. Culbertson, a labor lawyer who was known locally for his relatively liberal views, drove this home during a closing argument that compared Earle to a rabid dog. “You might shoot a mad dog and be prosecuted, but if a mad dog were loose in my community, I’d shoot the dog and let them prosecute me,” he said. His colleague Thomas Wofford played on local resentments about the FBI’s role and the presence of “northern press.”
Popham wrote that the defense lawyers pulled out all the stops in their emotional appeals, making references to “King Solomon’s wisdom, the Book of Deuteronomy, tortures of the Middle Ages, Civil War devastation of Southern homes, the atomic bomb, and Northern publications and radio commentators” to support their argument that the accused were the victims of what one lawyer called “the incurable malady of meddler’s itch.”
When it came time to release the jury, Judge Martin ordered them to remove such thoughts from their minds. The trial was about illegal punishment administered by a mob. They were not to let “any so-called racial issue to enter into your deliberations.”
The jury came back after five hours and handed over their verdict: not guilty for all twenty-eight defendants, on ninety-six counts of murder, conspiracy, and accessory before and after the fact. With a light rain hitting the courtroom windows and black spectators looking down glumly from a segregated balcony, Judge Martin turned to the jurors, told them their service was over, and walked out. “As the roll-call of acquittal was completed,” a United Press reporter wrote, “Hurd…jumped on a chair and shouted, ‘Justice has been done—I feel the best I ever felt in my life.’”
President Truman had a bad case of meddler’s itch himself, even though 1947 wasn’t a good time to start picking fights. He’d inherited the presidency instead of winning it, the economy was still in a postwar funk, and he was getting raked by critics on both the right and the left as his public opinion numbers plunged. The 1946 congressional elections had been a disaster, with Democrats becoming the minority party in both the House and Senate for the first time since 1928. Politically, he was seen as a lame duck who could easily be defeated in 1948. A popular Republican joke of the time asked, “What would Harry Truman do if he were alive today?”
Despite his weakness, Truman kept making moves that seemed certain to alienate Southerners. On June 29, he gave a major speech on civil rights at the Lincoln Memorial, appearing alongside Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter White before delegates to the annual conference of the NAACP. Speaking to a mostly black crowd of roughly 10,000 in the same setting that Martin Luther King Jr. would use sixteen years later, he made a promise to act.
“I should like to talk to you briefly about civil rights and human freedom,” he began. “It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights.
“When I say all Americans,” he added, “I mean all Americans.”
The speech didn’t get into specifics, but those followed in early 1948, after the October 1947 release of To Secure These Rights, a landmark document detailing the injustices facing black Americans. In it, Truman asked for several legislative remedies that were poison pills for Southern congressmen, including abolition of the poll tax, anti-lynching legislation, and the creation of a permanent federal civil rights commission.
The report’s brief section on lynching described the murders of Willie Earle, John Jones, and the Malcoms and Dorseys. “[L]ynching is the ultimate threat by which his inferior status is driven home to the Negro,” it said. “As a terrorist device, it reinforces all the other disabilities placed upon him. The threat of lynching always hangs over the head of the southern Negro; the knowledge that a misinterpreted word or action can lead to his death is a dreadful burden.”
The Southern backlash was instantaneous. “Forty-nine South Carolina legislators denounced this program last week as ‘repugnant,’” the Times reported. “In a similar criticism, Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi proposed that the Solid South withhold all its electoral votes to make possible the election of a ‘distinguished southerner.’”
The fight was on, and it would cause a huge rift in the Democratic Party: the Dixiecrat revolt. One of its chief architects was a man who played a defining role in the McGee case, Mississippi governor Fielding Wright, who would eventually stand as Strom Thurmond’s running mate on the States’ Rights Party ticket that challenged Truman in 1948. In mid-February, after Truman delivered a speech about his legislative goals, Wright began mobilizing support for some kind of organized political response. At a conference of Mississippi Democrats held in Jackson on February 12, 1948—which 4,000 people attended—he and others passed a resolution that said Truman’s civil rights proposals violated everything held dear by “true white Jeffersonian Democrats.”
“Unless we repudiate such action we shall stultify ourselves,” he said. “On us should be the stigma of sacrificing principle for paltry gains, of choosing power and losing self respect, of seeking the end, no matter the means. That course we denounce.”
Without Fielding Wright, there might not have been a Dixiecrat revolt, and his place at the front of a guerrilla political movement was a surprise. Up until the late 1940s, his career had been about as beige as they come.
Wright was born in 1895 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, a small Delta town forty-five miles north of Vicksburg. He attended the University of Alabama for two years starting in 1912 and then went back home to “read the law,” working at a small-town firm—with an interruption for overseas duty in World War I—until 1927, when he ran for state senate. When that term ended he won a seat in the state house, where he rose to the position of speaker by 1936. He left government in 1940 to join a Vicksburg law firm and came back to win a race for lieutenant governor in 1943.
He became governor after Thomas Bailey died of cancer in November 1946, and he won a term in his own right the next year, positioning himself as a low-key bureaucrat. His campaign literature provided lengthy lists of the useful things he’d done—“Helped provide School Lunch Program…Pushed financing of Statewide Forestry Fire Protection Program…”—and he looked the part: a genial, distinguished-looking man with graying hair and horn-rimmed glasses.
But Wright also had a hard edge, and on a separate issue—law and order as it applied to black defendants—he had already proved himself to be a stern judge, a fact that didn’t bode well for McGee. During his first, partial term as governor, he had been confronted with an emotional appeal in a capital punishment case that involved two African-American fifteen-year-olds, Charles Trudell and James Lewis, who were scheduled to die for the murder of their employer, a white sawmill operator named Harry McKey. Blanche Meiers, a middle-aged mother of eight from Oakland, California, mounted a personal crusade to save their lives, and in January 1947 she traveled by train to plead with Wright in person, an uphill quest that was covered as a human-interest story all over the country. Meiers said she was dying of “an incurable disease” and that saving the boys would be her “one last good deed before I meet my God.”
Normally, such meddling would have been greeted with scorn in Jackson newspapers, but Mrs. Meiers was hard to dislike. The Jackson Daily News ran a picture of her extending her arms for a Jewish-mother hug, under the headline PLEADS FOR NEGRO YOUTHS. The tone of the coverage was that she was well-meaning but misguided.
Wright agreed to see her, but before she arrived he traveled to the boys’ jail cell in Woodville, a tiny southwest Mississippi town near the Louisiana border. There, he said, they gave him a full confession and “glibly told of other crimes they had planned.” Though Wright’s mind was already closed to Mrs. Meiers’s words, he treated her with courtesy, and she reciprocated by praising his fairness. “Withhold your criticism of the governor of Mississippi,” she said. “He is a good man—the law is wrong.”
Local newspapers praised Wright for behaving like a gentleman while standing firm. “That was what Mississippians would have expected of any Mississippi governor,” said a Clarion-Ledger editorial. “…[W]e…congratulate His Excellency on his good judgment as well as his inherent instincts and manner.”
As promised, Wright didn’t relent. Trudell and Lewis were both electrocuted in July.
Prior to the Mississippi gubernatorial primary in the summer of 1947, Wright presented his case to voters at the Neshoba County Fair—a traditional proving ground for Mississippi politicians—not bothering to pretend he was a speaker in the grand tradition of Bilbo.
“He doesn’t get angry,” the Memphis Press-Scimitar reported, sounding disappointed. “He doesn’t rave and rant. He is not a flowery old-time orator. Wright simply stands before the people and talks quietly, telling them in simple terms what he has done and what he proposes to recommend….” Still, he threw off a few sparks. Late in the speech, without saying quite who he meant, Wright laid down a general warning to anybody—Truman Democrats, liberals, Communists—who would presume to interfere with Mississippi’s way of life.
“It is not necessary for me to call your attention to the crusade going on in certain sections deliberately planned and designed to place our state in a false light and hold us up to scorn,” he said. “…Certain pressure groups who do not approve of our philosophy and some who hate us because of our strong advancement in our economic condition are exerting every means to bring disunity, discord, and strife…. I have been battling these outside meddlers during my service as acting governor and since I became governor.”
Wright won easily, and his inaugural speech in early 1948 followed Truman’s 1948 State of the Union address by two weeks. Truman talked about civil rights again, so Wright made that one of his themes, denouncing the president’s civil rights committee and the likely “vicious effect” of its proposals. “Those of you who read and studied the report recognize in it a further and, I might say, the most dangerous step toward the destruction of these traditions and customs so vital to our way of life, particularly in our Southland,” he said. Mississippians had been good Democrats “when no other section stayed with that banner,” but their continued loyalty was not guaranteed. This legislation would end it.
Wright moved quickly. In early February, John Popham was on hand in Wakulla Springs, Florida, to hear him urge fellow members of the Southern Governor’s Conference to start thinking about a formal break with the Democrats. By the end of the month, the first Jackson meeting had been held; another was scheduled for May. On the eve of that one—a bigger affair that attracted delegates from other Southern states, including Strom Thurmond—Wright delivered a statewide radio address in which he told Mississippi’s black population to stop dreaming hopeless dreams: Segregation would never end.
“If any of you have become so deluded as to want to enter our white schools, patronize our hotels and cafes, enjoy social equality with the whites,” he said, “then kindness and true sympathy requires me to advise you to make your home in some state other than Mississippi.”
As if Truman didn’t have enough to worry about in the summer of 1948, he also faced strong opposition on the left, led by Henry Wallace, FDR’s longtime secretary of agriculture and his vice president during World War II. With FDR’s blessing, Wallace was dumped from the 1944 Democratic ticket in favor of Truman. He served as Truman’s secretary of commerce but was fired in September 1946, because his public statements on such issues as the Soviet Union, the British Empire, and atomic secrecy were well to the left of the Truman Doctrine, which the president had laid out in a March 12, 1947, speech that called for the United States to support governments around the world that were fighting Communist encroachment.
Later that year, in a September 12 speech at Madison Square Garden called “The Way to Peace,” Wallace counseled against a postwar military alliance with Britain, said that only the United Nations should be trusted with atomic bombs, and argued that an overly aggressive stance against Soviet Russia was a mistake. “‘Getting tough’ never bought anything real and lasting—whether for schoolyard bullies or businessmen or world powers,” he said. “The tougher we get, the tougher the Russians will get.”
For good measure, he brought up the 1946 lynchings in Monroe, Georgia, saying that Americans needed to solve their own problems of “prejudice, hatred, fear, and ignorance of certain races” before they could hope to set an example for the world.
Secretary of State James F. Byrnes was furious that Wallace had sounded off about foreign policy, as was Truman. “He is a pacifist one hundred percent,” he wrote of Wallace in his diary. “He wants to disband our armed forces, give Russia our atomic secrets and trust a bunch of adventurers in the Kremlin Politboro…. The Reds, phonies and the ‘parlor pinks’ seem to be banded together and are becoming a national danger.”
Wallace resigned under pressure on September 20, and Truman had another full-fledged rival to contend with. By the winter of 1947, Wallace was the declared presidential candidate of the new Progressive Party, a group that would have lasting significance to the McGee case. In 1950 and 1951, when the case broke out and started to become well known, it didn’t happen solely because of the Communist Party and the CRC. The groundswell of support for McGee, which seemed to come out of nowhere, also occurred because Wallace people rallied around, seeing McGee as a cause that could bring a new level of mainstream attention to the emerging issue of civil rights.