The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
7. THE ODDS AGAINST SMILING JOHNNY
In early 1948, McGee won a second reversal from the Mississippi Supreme Court, which led to a third circuit-court trial within weeks. This time, the state judges reversed the decision only grudgingly, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that was announced on December 8, 1947, when Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP won a unanimous decision in Patton v. Mississippi.
The case’s central issue was the same one Dixon Pyles raised in his appeal of McGee’s second conviction: exclusion of blacks from jury lists, grand juries, and trial juries, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection requirement. Patton was filed first, so it reached the U.S. Supreme Court when the Mississippi Supreme Court was still considering McGee’s appeal.
Eddie “Buster” Patton was a young black man from Meridian who was accused of killing fifty-three-year-old J. L. Meadows, the white owner of a roadhouse. Meadows was found dead behind a counter on the morning of February 11, 1946, the victim of a blunt-instrument beating that left bruises and cuts all over his head, face, and body. Patton, who’d worked for him at one time, was arrested and questioned for eight hours. He confessed, though the prosecution decided not to use his admission of guilt, apparently anticipating a challenge over whether it had been beaten out of him. The case consisted of circumstantial evidence gained during the confession and physical evidence in the form of footprints, found outside the nightclub, that allegedly matched Patton’s shoes. The trial lasted only a day; Patton was found guilty in eighteen minutes and sentenced to death.
The grand jury and trial jury were all white and all male. The county, Lauderdale, was at least 35 percent African-American, but there hadn’t been a black on a nonfederal jury there for as long as anyone could remember. Just as Pyles later did, Patton’s lawyer, a local named Lonnie Broadway, put officials on the stand who admitted as much, testifying vaguely about two or three unnamed blacks who might have been placed on jury lists in the past but didn’t serve.
The Mississippi Supreme Court rejected Patton’s appeal, saying the problem wasn’t exclusion but a shortage of blacks who met the voter standards spelled out under Mississippi law—among them, the ability to pay a poll tax and to read and interpret sections of the state constitution. The justices knew that those rules, in place since 1890, were there to deny blacks their voting rights, but they pretended to believe the system was run fairly, resulting in a natural mathematical imbalance that explained why none was ever selected.
To support this, the Mississippi judges skipped any analysis of the rigged voting laws and made the scarcity of black voters their starting point. Based on testimony at Patton’s trial, they estimated that roughly a dozen blacks would qualify as potential jurors. Comparing that with the larger number of qualified whites (roughly 5,000), the justices concluded that this translated to “about one-fourth of one per cent negro jurors,” a ratio of –400 to 1. They imagined a hypothetical case in which county officials called in men for a jury pool of one hundred. Given the imbalanced ratio, they said, the presence of even one black juror would have been statistically unfair to his white counterparts.
“[T]he sheriff, had he brought in a negro, would have had to discriminate against white jurors, not against negroes—he could not be expected to bring in one-fourth of one negro,” the opinion said.
The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled as far back as 1880 that jury exclusion based on race was unconstitutional. There was no blanket way to enforce this in the South, but over the years the Court had reversed cases in which glaring violations occurred. With Patton, it served notice that Mississippi’s number games weren’t convincing, and that, by definition, unbroken decades of all-white juries “created a very strong showing that…Negroes were systematically excluded…because of race.” They dismissed the state court’s logic with an especially scornful word: “unwisdom.”
Patton didn’t magically end Mississippi jury exclusion, but it couldn’t be ignored in the short term. Two months later, on February 9, 1948, the Mississippi Supreme Court, citing Patton, reversed McGee’s second conviction in a 4–2 ruling. The majority’s terse opinion wasn’t nearly as long as a heated dissent by Justice Harvey McGehee, who insisted again that, as long as there were so few qualified black voters, it was unreasonable to expect that many or any would be chosen during the blind selection process required by law.
This series of events earned McGee his first mention in the New York Times, because Patton meant that his third trial would, one way or another, require the presence of blacks on a jury. Three local black men—Claude Arrington, Dr. T. J. Barnes, and T. D. Brown—were selected for the eighteen-man grand jury that indicted McGee on February 18, 1948.
Their presence was a modern milestone, and the Laurel Leader-Call gave them front-page coverage on February 17, complete with a photograph and a headline that said, “Jones County Makes History.” Black jurors had served in Mississippi during and after Reconstruction, but the McGee jurors were reported to be the first placed on a Mississippi circuit-court panel of any kind in the twentieth century.
The trickier question was where, exactly, their names had come from. They were drawn from an all-white list that had been created months before the Patton decision. And yet, suddenly, there they were, in an instant turnaround that wasn’t easy to explain. “It is considered unusual that the names of three negroes were drawn from the jury box,” the Jackson Daily News reported on February 16, “since there is such a small percentage of negroes qualified for jury service….”
It seemed more than unusual, and a question presented itself: Had the grand-jury process been tampered with? If so, how and why?
Somebody other than Dixon Pyles would have to figure that out, because he dropped the case. Any interest he had in McGee as a cause was outweighed by the negatives of getting in deeper. In an interview years later, he called it a simple cost-benefit question, saying “the pressure on was so great that I wanted a good deal more money than the people who were backing Willie McGee wanted to pay.”
Pyles didn’t elaborate, but he faced two obvious problems: anti-McGee sentiment in Mississippi and anti-Red rumblings in Washington. By this point, it was part of the public record that he’d been working with the CRC, a group that the House Un-American Activities Committee had attacked in early 1947, just nine months after it was formed, as a Communist front.
“Having adopted a line of militant skullduggery against the United States with the close of World War II,” the report began, “the Communist Party has set up the Civil Rights Congress for the purpose of protecting those of its members who run afoul of the law.”
McGee wasn’t discussed. At the time, HUAC was more interested in the CRC’s support of people like Gerhart Eisler, a New York–based Communist, originally from Germany, who was accused of being a Soviet spy. But Pyles’s name appeared on a list of CRC expenditures at the end, which showed that he’d received $1,750 in legal fees and expenses. For what, it didn’t say. And though this was just a fine-print mention, it probably would have been noticed by one of the most vocal HUAC members: John Rankin, a wild-eyed Democrat who had represented northeast Mississippi’s First Congressional District since 1921.
Having Rankin on your tail wasn’t something any Mississippi lawyer would want. Like Bilbo, he was a racist and anti-Semite who held grudges and loved fights. He was especially vehement on the subject of Communism, which he seemed to think was a Jewish conspiracy of ancient lineage. “Communism is older than Christianity,” he declared on the House floor in 1945. “It is the curse of the ages. It hounded and persecuted the Saviour during his earthly ministry, inspired his crucifixion, derided him in his dying agony, and then gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross.”
Pyles’s departure was a serious problem for the CRC, and Bella Abzug made her first trip to Mississippi to persuade him to stick with the case. Abzug discussed this journey in a series of oral-history interviews she did in 1995 and 1996 with Columbia University, where she graduated from law school in 1944. She didn’t say when she first got involved with McGee or when she went south, but it appears she came into the case at the suggestion of Abraham Isserman, a CRC lawyer she knew from the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild—an organization that often defended left-wing clients under attack by state and federal governments—and that she’d worked on the drafting of McGee’s second appeal. Her Mississippi trip must have happened around the second week of February 1947, after the Supreme Court’s reversal and before the third trial.
During this trip, Abzug met with Pyles in Jackson, failed to change his mind, and then drove to Laurel alone to ask the local district attorney for the names of qualified defense lawyers. Whoever she spoke with—she didn’t give a name—told her there wasn’t a person in town who would help her, so she hustled back to Jackson to try her luck there. Pyles, alarmed, told her he’d been getting calls “all day long that there’s this white, woman lawyer traveling to Laurel…. It’s a wonder you’re back safe.”
“Well, here’s where I am,” Abzug said. “Can you help me get a lawyer?”
“No. I don’t know anybody who would take this on.”
Abzug decided to find her man the old-fashioned way, by walking around downtown Jackson, knocking on doors. “I literally went from building to building where lawyers were housed,” she said. “…Most people weren’t in the least interest[ed]. In fact, they thought I was a crazy person.”
She finally succeeded thanks to a tip she’d gotten from a brother-in-law who had told her about a young, Jewish Mississippi attorney and army veteran named Alvin N. London. A dapper, dark-haired Hattiesburg native, London was a recent graduate of the Ole Miss law school. His office was on North Congress Street, just a few blocks from Pyles’s building. Abzug went in and told him she needed to assemble a new courtroom team for Willie McGee—immediately. As she recalled:
He said, “I have some guy I think would do it.” I said, “What about you?” He said, “Well, I could work with him, but I’m not really a trial lawyer.” His name was Poole, and Poole was a hard-drinking, swearing young man who had lost a leg, I guess it was in World War II. He was a very big drinker and Southern kind of personality, almost stereotypically, and I got these two guys involved in the case. That meant that I’d have to spend a great deal of time with them, in detail, because they didn’t know much about anything, to be truthful. So I retained them and I went back to New York, and I kept telling them what kinds of actions we would have to take.
Most people know Abzug from her heyday in the 1970s as a congresswoman and feminist. When she served in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1971 and 1977, she was in her fifties, and it was then that her iconic look became familiar all over the world: floppy hats, sacklike print dresses, and a broad, angular-featured face that could appear joyful or menacing, depending on what she was worked up about.
But Abzug was only twenty-six in early 1948, a young labor lawyer who had been a member of the New York Bar for less than a year. She dressed differently then, wearing fitted dresses and suits, gloves, and smaller, pinned-on hats—the standard workplace getup for women of that era, designed to increase her chances of being taken seriously in the male domains of union halls and law offices.
She looked different too. The Slavic features Bella inherited from her parents—first-generation immigrants from Russia named Emanuel and Esther Savitzky—were softer in her youth. “I was all Oriental and gorgeous then,” she told New York magazine in a 1977 profile. “I wore a size eleven.” She was kidding around, but it was true: One friend told an interviewer that young Bella looked like Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. After her college graduation, she briefly held a job modeling fashion turbans in a display window at Macy’s. Stalking around downtown Jackson, she must have cut a surprisingly exotic figure.
One thing that didn’t change, from earliest youth on, was her get-out-of-my-way personality. Born Bella Savitzky on July 24, 1920—the same year women got the vote—she grew up in the Bronx, in a financially strained but happy household supported by her father’s endless hours of work at a Hell’s Kitchen butcher shop he owned, the Live and Let Live Meat Market. Emanuel died when Bella was thirteen. Her other important role models were Esther—an “all mother” figure, she said, who supported her in everything she wanted to do—and her grandfather, an ancient and loving Orthodox Jew named Wolf Tanklevsky, who used to babysit Bella and take her to synagogue.
“[H]e would be very proud of the fact that I could read Hebrew and he would show me off to all his cronies,” she recalled. “But the minute the services started I was placed in a segregated area, because in our religion women and men are separated by what we call a mechitza, which is a curtain. Many people have suggested that it was in those early days, behind the curtain, that I probably first got my ideas of feminism….”
Bella was a gifted talker, and, naturally enough, she became a student leader. At Hunter College—then the all-women’s campus of New York’s City College system, which she attended from 1938 to 1942—she was elected student-council president in her junior year. The late 1930s to early 1940s were turbulent times on New York campuses, and her role involved a mix of corsage-and-tea activity (helping organize the Hunter College “Biennial Carnival”) and serious, often radical, undergraduate politics.
Bella was active in the American Student Union, an organization formed in 1935 as a merger of existing groups for students who were Socialists or Communist sympathizers. She said she was neither, even though she was “recruited” by everybody from the Socialists to the Stalinists. She described herself as a nonaligned progressive with healthy doubts about the American way.
“Certainly it was clear to me that our own system had never been that great,” she said. “…I thought socialism was an interesting philosophy that should play itself out, if it could happen. I was never a Russophile…although I’ve been accused of being that, historically, all the time. People are always saying that, because I took certain progressive positions, which may or may not have coincided with positions the Soviet Union took.”
Among Bella’s stances on issues of the day: She supported the anti-Fascist Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War; opposed aid to Great Britain before the U.S. entry into World War II (at the time, many left-leaning students were more concerned about British imperialism than Nazi aggression); and spoke out against the Rapp-Coudert Committee, a long-running attempt by New York State to find and crush “subversive activities” in New York schools and colleges. Bella was also part of a huge ASU contingent that went to Washington in early 1940 to voice opposition to any American involvement in the war.
One controversial issue from those months was the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland, which happened in late 1939, three months after Hitler and Stalin shocked the world by signing a nonaggression pact. On this, Bella was in tune with the party line pushed by American Communists: strong support for the Soviets, on the grounds that conquering Finland provided an essential buffer against potential invasion from the anti-Communist West. A popular party slogan about Britain’s and Finland’s plight was “The Yanks Are Not Coming,” and in late February 1940 Bella proposed the creation of “The Yanks Are Not Coming” clubs on the Hunter campus.
“[T]he youth of America cannot be misled by fine slogans and stimulating horror stories,” she was quoted saying in the student newspaper, the Hunter Bulletin. “…We [demand] that all loans to Finland and money for rearmament be used to alleviate the misery of the unemployed in America, and to extend NYA, WPA, housing and Social Security programs.”
Bella got her first taste of bad press when a pair of New York Post reporters wrote about Hunter in March 1941, saying that her political stands branded her as “a campus pink.”
“Among those who have generally followed the Communist line in her college activities is Bella Savitzky, 20,” the story said, alongside a picture of Bella smiling and banging a gavel. “…Bella denies that she belongs to the Communist party; she admits that she is anti-British, but says that is because she is a Zionist.”
Bella denounced the article in a signed comment on the front page of the Bulletin. “Any statements as to my political opinions were pure fabrications,” she wrote. “Any implications as to communist affiliations or leanings are completely unfounded.” Half a century later, she was still irritated by that article, calling it “a bunch of half-baked, half-truthful ideas about me….”
After college, Bella visited an aunt in Miami, where she met her future husband, Martin Abzug, an aspiring writer from New York who published two novels before going into finance. They married in 1944. She went to law school at Columbia between 1942 and 1944, which, by definition, made her a pioneer. There were only a handful of women in her class; Harvard didn’t graduate its first female law students until 1953. Compared with Bella’s glowing memories of life at Hunter, law school sounded unpleasant: a prolonged exposure to the attributes she resented in many men.
“The faculty…did not treat us well,” she said. “They were condescending…they were scoffing, and they did not make it easy for us to function in law school.” Once again, though, she excelled. She became an editor on the Columbia Law Review, an experience she remembered as “a form of torture” that, nonetheless, was “good training in research” and “how to write a good brief.”
After law school, Abzug took a job with a prominent labor-oriented law firm, Pressman, Witt & Cammer, whose partners would all become boldface names in the battles over alleged Communist subversion that unfolded after the war. Harold Cammer was a founder of the National Lawyers Guild, which had been labeled a Communist front by Congress and the Justice Department. Nathan Witt was a former secretary of the National Labor Relations Board. During the 1948–1949 hearings and trial of Alger Hiss—the State Department official accused by former Communist spy Whittaker Chambers of having passed secret information to Russia during the Roosevelt administration—Witt was accused of conspiring with Hiss. Best known of them all was Lee Pressman, who had briefly been a Communist when he worked for the Department of Agriculture in 1934, but who publicly recanted that part of his past in 1950. During subpoenaed testimony before HUAC, Pressman corroborated Chambers’s claim that a Communist cell had existed inside the Agriculture Department.
Abzug seemed to hate Pressman, who embodied everything that annoyed her: arrogance, condescension toward women, and personal disloyalty. “I never liked the guy,” she said. “Never, ever. I thought he was arrogant, I thought he was self-centered…. He went before the Un-American Activities Committee and accused his dear friends, whom I worked for…of having been in a Communist cell with him. He was a traitor. People never talked to him after that, and they stopped bragging about him. But I knew him for what he was: crap. Absolute crap. Listen. You can tell in a man’s attitude toward you. He treated me like I was a piece of nothing.”
For different reasons, Abzug wasn’t very impressed with John Poole, the young lawyer she hired to run the defense at McGee’s third trial. In her oral history, she dismissed him as an alcoholic who was out of his depth and “fancied himself as a person who could argue a big, important issue like this….” Only with Alvin London’s help, she said, was she able to get him to “think clearly” about what he had to do.
She was right that Poole had a drinking problem—it’s mentioned in an FBI report from 1950—but her assessment seems far too harsh, and it overlooks traits that these unlikely partners had in common. Like Abzug, Poole was smart, hardworking, and energetic. More important in this instance: He was headstrong enough to do the job. By 1948, not many lawyers were willing to take on the risky, thankless chore of defending Willie McGee. Abzug wouldn’t. She said it was out of the question for her to try the case herself, because, as a “white, Jewish woman lawyer from New York,” she wouldn’t have had a chance.
The assignment wasn’t any easier for Poole and London. The fact that they were Southern males wasn’t an advantage, because they were perceived as traitors to their own culture. They were even younger than Abzug—Poole was twenty-five, London only twenty-three—and they had almost no experience. They were handling divorces and wills when Abzug invited them to take on a challenge that must have seemed nearly impossible. London, who was interviewed in 1952 by Spivak, the investigator representing the Daily Worker, frankly admitted that, if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t.
“It was quite an experience,” he said. “It was one of those things I would give a great deal if I had never been in.”
Poole’s full name was John Riley Poole Jr. He grew up in Jackson, where he attended Central High School and Millsaps College, just like Dixon Pyles. As Abzug correctly recalled, he was missing a leg, but this wasn’t from a war injury. He lost it in a 1936 train-hopping accident that happened in Dallas, Texas, when Poole was only sixteen. He and a friend had run away from home and were heading to California—a fact that says a lot about Poole’s youthful personality, which was sometimes too adventurous for his own good.
Poole grew up on a street in the Bailey Avenue neighborhood, in what was then north Jackson, in a small house about a half mile from the downtown rail yards. His father, John Sr., worked for the Illinois Central. Poole had six brothers and sisters, some of whom were already grown and gone when his mother, Ada, died in 1936. A sister named Mildred took care of the family, keeping house and proselytizing for Sister Aimee Semple McPherson’s Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Los Angeles–based evangelistic crusade that had been growing steadily since its founding in 1927. Poole was almost drawn in himself. Though he rejected religion as an adult, he was a devoted Bible student back then, and for a while he dabbled with the idea of becoming a Foursquare minister.
Poole had a wilder side, running around with a group of neighborhood guys who called themselves the Bailey Avenue Gang. They weren’t a “gang” in the modern sense—though Poole said later that they were “a pretty tough bunch,” with some of them winding up in reform school—and it’s unclear why Poole decided to raise the bar on his misbehavior and hop a freight to California. He talked about the accident that cost him a leg to a Jackson newspaperman roughly a year and a half after it happened, but never wrote anything in depth himself. His three daughters, Beverly, Carolyn, and Donna, only remember fragments of what their parents told them about it.
Poole told the Jackson reporter that he and two friends decided to head for California one summer, getting as far as Dallas before they decided to turn back. He was groggy when one of his friends told him a freight train was coming. “When I hopped to my feet, I saw it was going too fast,” Poole said, “but it seemed like something just made me try for it anyhow. I guess I was still half asleep. I didn’t quite get a good hold on the rungs when I grabbed, just enough to jerk me off my feet. It threw me under the boxcar.”
Poole’s right leg went under the steel wheels and was nearly severed below the knee. His friends carried him to the train station. From there, Poole was rushed off to a hospital, where his leg was amputated, and where he stayed for several weeks. He later said the incident straightened him out for good, and it was during that period that he vowed to get serious about schoolwork, because he’d decided he wanted to become a lawyer.
By the time he was seventeen, in 1939, Poole had also bounced back enough to compete in the ring as an amateur boxer. That year, he was profiled in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, in an article headlined “Odds Against Smiling Johnny Bother Him Not One Little Bit.” It told the story of how young “Johnny Poole” had thwarted his disability to become a capable lightweight fighter. A captioned photo (“Laughs Off Handicap”) showed him looking boyish and all-American—big ears, huge smile, handsome eyes, and a cowlick—dressed in the long cotton boxing trunks he wore to hide his wooden leg.
As the article explained, Poole was determined to compete in a sport, and the basic leg movements of boxing—shuffling, hopping, planting weight—were feasible on his artificial limb. “Despite the unsteady foot work,” the Commercial Appeal said, “Johnny hits hard…. Two good limbs would make him even more powerful with his punches.”
When you look at Poole’s youth, a consistent theme is this desire to keep striving. During his years at Millsaps, which he attended from 1941 to 1944, he was a joiner—manically so. Among other activities, he took part in the debate club (serving as president), the Millsaps Singers (tenor), the International Relation Club, the Empyreans (a social club), and Pi Kappa Delta (for speech-competition students).
In 1944, he ran for student-body president, using his crowded list of extracurricular activities as its own selling point. “LEADERSHIP MERITS LEADERSHIP,” his campaign literature said. “LOOK AT THE RECORD. John has proved that he is an efficient leader. He is president of the PRE-LAW CLUB, president of the DEBATE CLUB, and president of the ECONOMICS CLUB. Under his guidance, these clubs have taken on new life.”
Poole lost the race, and the 1944 Millsaps yearbook hinted at a price to his overactivity. He was mentioned in an article about campus big shots, but it was noted that he’d “resigned all of his offices in the honoraries in order to study.”
In the summer of 1947, just after Poole’s graduation from Ole Miss law school, he ran for office again, taking the bold step of entering the Democratic primary for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He lost, but that wasn’t really the point. Emmett Owens, a friend of Poole’s who knew him during the Bailey Avenue days, says he ran for the publicity, as a way of announcing himself as a new face in town.
His decision to defend McGee probably had multiple motives. Owens says he needed money, like Pyles, but his independent streak must have been part of it. “My dad was not a follower,” says his daughter Beverly, a longtime Jackson lawyer who was born just four months before Poole took the McGee case. If it was attention he wanted, he got it: Defending McGee eventually made him famous (and infamous) all over the state. But his youngest daughter, Donna, a professionally licensed counselor who lives in Springfield, Missouri, doesn’t believe he did it just for the notoriety. For the past few years, she’s been working on a memoir about her father; in her manuscript, she argues that Poole’s decision to defend McGee involved fundamental beliefs.
“Dad must have sensed the danger ahead of time,” she writes, “so his reasons for taking the case—with the chance of his practice being endangered with a pregnant wife and a toddler at home—must have been inspired by more than mere adventure…. He had told me in later years, regarding his practice, that he wanted to try to give the black man in Mississippi the full advantage of his rights under the law. He felt an obligation to his lawyer’s oath to serve anyone impartially, and I suppose then, in seeing the extreme exigency of Willie McGee, he had set his reasonableness aside.”
Judging by outward appearances, the first and third McGee trials were quite different. The 1945 edition was held with armed troops in the courtroom and the threat of lynching in the air. It was one-sided, simple, and quick—the transcript is only eighty-five pages long.
The third trial happened without the military presence, lasted several days, and produced a transcript totaling 910 pages. Most of the extra verbiage came during pretrial arguments over matters like venue, jury selection, and public attitudes toward McGee, issues that both sides knew would come up if the case was appealed again. It had been sent back twice on procedural grounds, so the challenge for the state wasn’t just to get a guilty verdict, but to keep it. To do that, the prosecution had to anticipate and neutralize any irregularities that might cause trouble down the line.
The state’s three-man prosecution team—locals all, and all more experienced than Poole and London—was led by Paul Swartzfager Sr., the new district attorney, a commanding, hefty thirty-nine-year-old army veteran who had been elected the previous summer after promising to take the McGee case to a swift conclusion. Working with him were the county prosecutor, E. K. Collins, and Jack Deavours, who had been hired as a special prosecutor by the Hawkins family.
Swartzfager died in 2000, but according to his son Jon, a lawyer based in Laurel, people in town let him know that anything less than lasting victory was unacceptable. Jon was only seven in 1948, but he says he remembers his father being summoned to the local VFW hall by a group of men—he doesn’t know who they were—who drove the point home.
“They wanted him to bust his butt to get a conviction,” Jon told me. “But then also to guarantee that the Supreme Court wasn’t going to reverse it, and to guarantee that he would get the death penalty to stick, and guarantee that Willie McGee would be executed. Well, my dad could guarantee all that, but truth of the fact is he couldn’t control what the Supreme Court was going to do.”
What could be controlled was how Laurel came off in the written record. Mob atmosphere? There wasn’t one. During early testimony, the courtroom was only partially full, and Swartzfager claimed that people in Laurel were, believe it or not, bored with McGee. On the stand, Laurel mayor Carroll Gartin testified to a distinct “lack of conversation or discussion” about the case. Thomas Gibbons, publisher of the Leader-Call, admitted that he personally thought McGee was guilty but said the public mood was as fair as you’d find anywhere. “[P]eople think justice ought to be done, but I haven’t heard anybody blowing their tops on account of it,” he said.
The courtroom would fill up once the trial started, but to counter this image of disinterest, the defense needed to produce witnesses who would testify that the public did care, and that there was rampant prejudice against McGee. Poole worked hard to find them, with help from a third lawyer, Jackson-based Clarence Holland, and Tennessee-based CRC investigator Laurent Frantz. But he wasn’t playing on a level field, thanks to the rapid pace set by Judge Collins, who presided for the third time and who, from the outset, seemed to function as an adjunct member of the prosecution.
The verdict of the second trial had been reversed on February 9. Poole and London signed up late in the evening on the 17th. The new indictment was issued on the 18th, and Collins scheduled the case for the 20th, refusing the defense’s request for a delay. By the 26th, Thursday of the following week, pretrial procedures were under way. The trial opened on March 3, a Wednesday. The whole thing ended three days later, on Saturday night.
The defense’s first move was to ask for a continuance. London put Poole on the stand so he could list the obstacles he’d faced while preparing. Because of his existing caseload in Jackson, he said, and because everything was happening so fast, he’d been unable to read the entire record from the first and second trials. He’d only had about fifteen minutes alone with McGee. He was trying to find new witnesses—he’d driven all over Laurel and Jones County talking to people—but he’d run into a wall of hostility and silence.
“I have talked with lawyers in Laurel,” Poole said, “one of whom said this to me: ‘You have done the craziest thing you could ever do by taking this case.’”
Poole’s statements backfired, giving Swartzfager easy targets during his questioning. Was Poole too busy to prepare? Tough. He shouldn’t have taken the job. He felt threatened in Laurel? Maybe he was panicking because he was green. “Now, whether the lawyer was ribbing you, or whether he was serious about the matter, nothing has happened to you, has there?” Swartzfager asked. Poole said it hadn’t, but he insisted the threat was real. He added, quietly, that two lawyers had told him this, not just one.
Swartzfager told him to speak up. “What was that, Mr. Poole?”
“I merely said there was another lawyer who told me that also.”
Swartzfager still couldn’t hear him.
“There was another member of the bar of the Second Judicial District of Jones County, Mississippi, that told me that also.”
At that, Deavours—who’d obviously heard every word—interrupted with a wisecrack. “You can’t put too much confidence in these lawyers,” he said.
“Well, they used to scare me too when I started out,” Swartzfager joked.
Later, Poole’s inexperience showed when he went on too long about the single exception he’d found to the code of silence: a white woman in her late fifties named Mrs. O. A. McMullan, who reportedly told Poole, “The lawyers themselves should be shot for having anything to do with this case, for defending the old rascal. He is guilty and everybody knows it.”
Poole wanted to put Mrs. McMullan on the stand but she was said to be ill. He wanted a stay until she was fit to testify, and to that end he called in her physician, a Dr. C. H. Ramsey, who said she was suffering from coronary thrombosis and was “never” going to get better. Poole kept after him, asking if it would be possible to bring her to court “in a wheel chair.”
“In a wheel chair.”
“Well, she would have to be carried up.”
“That’s what I mean. That would be possible?”
“Well…the strain, the exertion, the excitement, just being a witness might cause her to have a relapse, in other words, a new attack.”
This was a bad image to conjure up: an old lady clutching her chest as she’s dragged into court on behalf of an accused black rapist. Things got worse when Clarence Holland took the stand and Swartzfager made him admit that Mrs. McMullan was his aunt. The only reason Poole “interviewed” her was that Holland was obliged to pay her a visit while he was in town. They’d gone to see her in the middle of what Holland sheepishly described as a bridge party and tea.
Poole’s search for new witnesses wasn’t a complete bust: He found a woman who was never called during the third trial, but who would be important to the case later. Her name was Hettie Johnson, and she had come up in the first trial, when she was mentioned as a resident of one of the houses McGee had gambled in. According to Poole, he’d learned that she had new information that would provide a solid alibi for McGee. He didn’t say what it was, just that she and her husband, William, had been difficult to locate, so he needed more time.
“They are Negro witnesses, and I have found now that they are residing in Florida,” Poole said. “They were residing in Laurel up until—until not long ago, and I got their addresses in Florida, and it took me some time to do that.”
Collins wasn’t about to let him reel them in. After sustaining various objections by Swartzfager, he shut down this line of inquiry, saying, “The Court doesn’t think the testimony in this case shows any cause for continuance whatever.”
Poole and London were on firmer ground with the issue of jury selection. They alleged that the state had engaged in chicanery by planting the three blacks who served on the grand jury. How did it work? And why did it happen?
To Poole, the answers were obvious. The state needed black jurors to satisfy Patton. The challenge was to have them while simultaneously nullifying their presence. The way to do it was to put them on the eighteen-man grand jury, whose members didn’t have to vote unanimously to indict McGee. The trial jury, in contrast, would have to vote 12–0 to convict.
Poole and London questioned various circuit-court and county officials, including E. T. Orso, a Jones County supervisor who, during the second trial, had told Dixon Pyles that he was unaware of any blacks ever being picked for a jury in his district. Now he claimed he’d been pulling their names for years, without “any discrimination at all.”
Poole asked Orso to walk him through the Jones County voter statistics, which were similar to the Lauderdale numbers cited in Patton: 5,500 qualified whites, 45 qualified blacks. The most recent Jones County jury list had been drawn up in April 1947. Orso said he put the names of “six or seven” blacks on it. The total pool numbered 264 jurors, with 257 of them white.
Poole held up a copy of the list, explaining that the names were typed in three separate blocks. The first group, 42 names in all, was arranged alphabetically in three columns. Below that was a second group labeled OTHERS. Also alphabetical, it contained 187 names.
And below that, beneath a hand-drawn line, sat a third group of 35 names that weren’t alphabetized. The three black grand jurors—Barnes, Brown, and Arrington—were at the end of the list. Poole asked Orso “to explain why the names of the jurors have been listed alphabetically up until the last page, and at the middle of that page they are not named alphabetically.”
Swartzfager objected. Judge Collins told Poole to clarify what he was getting at.
“We are alleging…that the names have been arbitrarily placed on the jury list as well as being arbitrarily placed on the grand jury.”
Collins didn’t care for that. “Now, gentlemen,” he said to Poole and London, “when you say arbitrarily placed…. You would have to allege how they were arbitrarily placed on there, and introduce testimony to support that allegation.”
Deavours got angry. “I would like to ask whether he means…that the Clerk or somebody has been tampering with the Minutes, and that these names have been added to the list since it was made?”
“That is what I am trying to bring out,” Poole said.
“All right,” Deavours said, gesturing toward Orso, “why don’t you ask him if he has been tampering with the jury list?”
Orso didn’t wait to be asked. “Is that what you mean to infer, sir?”
“Well, sir, you are just wrong. There hasn’t been anything done to the list since last April.”
Right then, Poole started losing ground, because he didn’t have any witnesses—such as a documents expert—who were prepared to testify that they could confirm physical evidence of tampering. Lacking that, it was his theory against the word of every judicial official in Jones County. He pressed on anyway, asking Orso why all the names of potential black jurors were conveniently placed at the end.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“But you did know that they were Negroes, did you not?”
“You did know that you placed them on the jury list, didn’t you?”
“Well, don’t you know why…they were the last ones placed on the list?”
That caused a burst of objections; as before, Collins responded by shutting down the exchange. “The Court holds that all this is immaterial as to where and on what position the names of any jurors appear on the list,” he said. “The Board of Supervisors has a right to put the names anywhere he wants to in making the list.”
Direct testimony began on Friday morning, with the prosecution laying out a slightly expanded version of the same case it had presented twice before. Once again, Willette and Troy led off by describing the terrors of that night in November 1945, while other witnesses—Bill Barnes, George Walker, Paul Britton, and so on—made it seem plausible that McGee was on Magnolia Street when the crime occurred. Mrs. Hawkins’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. John Jensen—who hadn’t testified at the first trial—said that Willette turned up that night at the back of her house right around a quarter to five, hysterical, screaming, and wearing only a “small halter.” Jensen said she took her inside and wrapped her in a sheet, which got stained with her menstrual blood.
When Mrs. Hawkins took the stand, journalists and spectators were cleared, and a question hung in the air: How far would the defense go in cross-examining her? Lawyers on both sides would have known that Pyles, in his appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, had spent many pages arguing that her failure to scream or to resist McGee constituted consent.
For Pyles, the key was the phrasing she used in her first-trial testimony.
“The prosecutrix testified that…she stated or thought, ‘Well, if that is all, I can take it,’” he wrote. “She admits that she was not afraid for herself, but that if she resisted she would awake the children.
“From her own testimony,” Pyles went on, “it appears that she valued the sleep of her children more than her virtue. A further careful scrutiny…leaves a strong inference that she consented to the sexual act.”
What most people didn’t know was that McGee had told Poole—just as he’d told Pyles—that Mrs. Hawkins seduced him, though with Poole he didn’t mention the “double indemnity” plot. In Poole’s 1952 interview with Spivak, he said he’d heard McGee’s affair story and had even looked into it, but only in a “scanty” way that didn’t lead to any corroboration. Later, based on things he’d heard from a source in Laurel, he decided he didn’t believe it—at least, that’s what he told Spivak. Poole said that, after the trial was over, he paid a visit to a highway patrolman who’d been friendly to him, to ask for an honest account of what he knew about Mrs. Hawkins’s private life.
“I told him that…I’d just like to talk to him privately and that I didn’t want any lies,” Poole said. “…He said that he went with [Willette] prior to the time she got married. At that time, he did think she was not the type girl that would do it.”
“That would do what?” Spivak asked.
“That would go out and commit adultery.”
“[W]omen don’t run around committing adultery and advertising it.”
“He is the type of fellow that would get anything in his hands he could find,” Poole said.
“He was, eh?”
“Frankly, I don’t believe he [was] trying to cover up this thing at all.”
Not a word of this came up during the trial. Questioned by Deavours, Mrs. Hawkins told her story again, and he asked what she did to resist. “I begged him not to do anything,” she said. “I pleaded with him and I pushed him, and he was so big and rough, he was just a brute and there was nothing I could do.”
“Did he make any threats towards you?”
“He said, ‘I will cut your throat. Don’t make any noise, I will cut your throat.’…The baby kept whimpering and he said, ‘Keep that damned brat quiet or I will cut her head open’ or something to that effect, and during that time I was calling Troy, and every time I said anything he would shut me up…and he told me what he came for, and he said he was going to do it and me dead or alive, and the only reason in the world I took such things was for my family. You know, mother instinct is something.”
She went on to say that she never consented but was overpowered by a man whom she described as “a brutal beast” and “a monster.” There wasn’t anything she could do to fight back, she said, but she would have submitted anyway if that had been necessary to save the lives of her family. “I would have taken anything in preference to having anything happen to my little girls,” she said.
When Poole’s turn came, he established that Mrs. Hawkins couldn’t identify the rapist, because it was too dark to see his face.
“I never saw him,” she agreed.
“All you know is that he was a big monster of a Negro, that was what you thought?”
“He was a Negro, and he was a beast.”
“And he was a big old Negro, and as you termed it a while ago, a monster—”
Deavours objected. She said she hadn’t seen his face; there was no need to belabor it. Poole moved on, having made a point that wouldn’t do him much good with a white jury. At five feet seven inches, McGee was no “monster.” But he was young, muscular, and black, which was all the jurors needed to hear. Besides, whatever size he was, a physically fit male would have seemed monstrous enough to a ninety-two-pound woman with a baby in her arms.
Trial transcripts can make for stark reading, because there’s no descriptive language about a witness’s tone of voice or physical reactions. In the case of Mrs. Hawkins, however, it’s evident that she became terribly upset during her time on the stand. Poole and London talked about this toward the end of the trial, arguing that the prosecution had tried to prejudice the jury by putting her in a side room after she’d stepped down, so they could hear her sobbing. London called her “very much upset, almost hysterical” and said she started crying toward the close of Poole’s questioning. As the transcript shows, Poole pushed her in a way that would have angered local spectators.
At one point, after Mrs. Hawkins described the moment when she realized that the man crawling toward her on the floor was an intruder, Poole asked whether she’d screamed when she “first knew it wasn’t Troy.” She’d already stated that, in her groggy state, she thought the person on the floor was her husband. By the time she realized he wasn’t, the attacker was on top of her, using his strength to pin her down and threatening to kill her.
“[D]id you or not testify on one of the previous trials, ‘Well, if that is all you want I can take it?’”
“You mean that I said that to the Negro?”
“I didn’t say it to the Negro. I might have testified I said it, but at the time I was just thinking that.”
Poole started reading testimony from the earlier transcript, and right then he must have realized he’d made a mistake. At the first trial, Mrs. Hawkins had clearly said, “I thought, ‘Well, if that’s all I can take it….’”
Swartzfager pounced. “She said she thought that and that is exactly what her response was to this question, that she didn’t say it, [but]…thought it.”
At this, Mrs. Hawkins posed a question to Poole: “Do you have a wife?” He nodded. “That’s all I want to know.”
“Yes, I do,” he said, “and as a matter of fact I realize that the crime is awful, especially when perpetrated as this one is alleged to have been perpetrated, so I approach you, not with the attitude of embarrassing you at all, and I hope you understand that.”
Mrs. Hawkins didn’t seem soothed. She undermined Poole further by testifying that, contrary to the attacker’s orders, she had made a sound. “I cried out,” she said. “I don’t know how loud I screamed.”
Poole questioned her closely about the distance between bedrooms in the house, the volume of her cry, and how it was possible that neither her husband nor her two other children woke up.
“Listen, some day your wife…this might happen to her and if it does you can ask her all those foolish questions,” she said. “What did she do? How loud did she call? What did she say?”
Toward the end, questioned again by the prosecution, Mrs. Hawkins stated that her memories of that night weren’t always clear. But why would anybody expect them to be?
“[So] much happened, and so fast, and the first of December I came up here, and I don’t know how much dope I had taken,” she said. “I stayed in the hospital a week or two, and I was so frightened, I was frightened out of my wits, I had a terrible shock, and I don’t want to live, I don’t want to live. [W]hen I go places people look at me and say, ‘That’s the woman that negro man raped,’ and I can hear them say it.”
Deavours finished by asking, “You have told the truth, haven’t you?”
“I have told the truth,” she said, “and I think the truth is bad enough.”
The prosecution’s case had the same strengths and weaknesses as always: The circumstantial case was fairly persuasive, but nobody could identify McGee by sight and there was no physical evidence—unless you counted the bloody boxer shorts with no blood on them, which were pulled out of mothballs and displayed again.
Swartzfager tried to offset this with extensive testimony about McGee’s two confessions, the one he delivered verbally on the way back from Hattiesburg, and the one he signed in the Hinds County jail. Half a dozen Hattiesburg and Laurel law enforcement officials took the stand, among them Hattiesburg patrolman Hugh Herring, who, with patrolman E. C. Harris, made the arrest on November 3, 1945; Hattiesburg Police Chief M. M. Little; Laurel Police Chief Wayne Valentine; Laurel policeman Jeff Montgomery; and Luther Hill, who was the Jones County sheriff at the time of McGee’s arrest.
They presented a united front, saying that McGee had acted like a man with something to hide, and that he’d confessed to the rape without being coerced.
During this round of questions, for the first time, Poole and London started sounding as if they had something up their sleeves. London asked Herring if McGee had been cursed at, hit, or threatened with hanging before confessing. “No, sir, we don’t have no gallows there,” he said.
This feeling that something new was coming also pervaded Poole’s questioning of Valentine and Montgomery, who described the investigation of the crime scene and the circumstances of McGee’s confession.
Valentine said that when the police bulletin came from Hattiesburg, he drove over with Montgomery and highway patrolman Jack Anderson. There, McGee voluntarily submitted to a search that revealed the bloody underwear. On the way back to Laurel, he confessed to the rape under routine questioning.
London cross-examined, and he seemed especially interested in the details of the confession. “Now, chief, on the way back to Laurel, did you tell him where you were taking him?”
“Yes, I told him I was bringing him back to Laurel.”
“Did you tell him what you were going to do with him up there?”
“Well, I told him I was going to bring him back to jail.”
“Did you, while you were driving towards Laurel, tell him…that if he would confess, that you would take him to the Jackson jail instead of Laurel jail?”
“No, I did not.”
Poole kept it up with Montgomery, asking, “[E]ven if you had made some threats to Willie McGee, you would be somewhat embarrassed to admit it on the stand, wouldn’t you?”
Deavours objected. “You talk about deliberately and determinedly trying to insult an officer of the law, and officers of this court,” he said. “I never saw a more deliberate attempt at it.”
“Your honor, I am not,” Poole said.
“You just asked an officer of the law, ‘In order to save this case you get up here and swear a lie.’”
Collins rejected the question as improper, but Deavours kept fuming. “If you have no respect for yourself,” he said, “you ought to have some for the officers.”
In fact, Poole and London did think the officers were lying. After the prosecution rested, they called just one witness, Luther Hill, and then told Collins they wanted to put Willie McGee on the stand, for the limited purpose of examining whether the confession story, as described by prosecution witnesses, was admissible. Collins agreed, the jury was cleared, and McGee was brought in.
Finally, after more than two years in which he’d said nothing at all in a public setting, the man at the center of everything walked to the stand and took a seat. With Poole asking the questions, McGee gave answers that sounded perfectly rational. Except that they described a parallel world where every fact was different, and where he’d been subjected to incredible violence.
“State your name, please.”
“You are the defendant in this case?”
“Willie, there is some testimony given that you made a voluntary confession to the crime charged against you—”
“It wasn’t voluntary,” he said.
McGee went on from there, saying he’d been beaten viciously from the moment he was arrested in Hattiesburg—by the officers who collared him; inside the Hattiesburg jail; in the highway patrol car on the ride back to Laurel; and repeatedly in Jackson, after he was transferred to the Hinds County jail.
In McGee’s version, he was minding his own business in Hattiesburg, about to head for the bus station to return to Laurel, when “two officers run up and grabbed me. I turned around and said, ‘What you all want?’, and they said, ‘What’s your name?’, and by the time I got ‘Willie’ out, he hit me. Mr. Hugh Herring hit me in the face there on the street, and he said, ‘You done ravished a white woman in Laurel,’ and he said, ‘You son of a bitch, we gonna break you negroes up that gone in the army from coming back here and raping White women.’ And I said, ‘I ain’t been in no army,’ and he took me back—”
“Willie, we want you to tell what happened in the automobile that you rode in to Laurel,” Poole said.
“Well, they got me…. You mean on the way from Hattiesburg up here to Laurel?”
“They taken me out of the jail and started on the way up here with me, and just as we got in the heart of town, Mr. Wayne told me, ‘If you know what’s good for you, there’s two roads leading out of here. One leads to Jackson and one leads to Laurel, and the White people in Laurel would be mighty glad to get ahold of you. Fact of the business, all they want is to get their hands on you. [I]f you know what’s good for you, you better tell me you done it, so I can take you on to Jackson.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t do it.’”
McGee said that, while they beat him, the officers mentioned Howard Wash, the 1942 lynching victim. “Were you actually in fear of being lynched?” Poole said.
“Willie, did they inform you of any rights you had to have a lawyer?”
“They ain’t told me nothing, but just kept punching and hitting me in the face and in the side.”
McGee said he was beaten repeatedly with a “slapjack”—“Every time I looked around it was a lick”—but that it was the lynching threat that finally broke his will. “[T]hat’s when I told him I did it,” he said. “[T]hen he said, ‘Now, will you tell the sheriff the same thing when you get up there?’ If you don’t…he said, ‘Nigger, it will be too bad for you.’”
After McGee stepped down, the state started calling witnesses back to contradict his story. One after another, they denied abusing him. “I was so kind and courteous to that negro that I even gave him cigarettes every time I went there,” said Albert Easterling, the man who took down McGee’s written confession at the Hinds County jail. “I’ll tell you, here’s what you’ve got here. He is a smart negro, he writes as pretty a hand as you do, and I imagine he has been instructed by somebody to tell you these lies.”
Later, McGee was put on the stand once more, again with the jury absent. When asked about the written confession, which he admitted to signing, he told Deavours that he did so only after two weeks of additional beatings and confinement in a “hot box,” which he described as a cell “where they put you and sweat you nearly ’bout to death.”
As he put it further along in the questioning, “[Y]ou stay in that hot box, you sign anything.”
Collins supported the law officers on both the oral and written confessions, saying of McGee’s testimony, “I believe this is just a prefabricated story and I don’t believe a word of it.” The written confession was read into the record.
Late in the day on Saturday, the whole trial began to go off the rails. On pages 909–910 of the transcript, it appears to come to an abrupt halt before it’s officially over. There’s a routine exchange between London and Collins, followed by boilerplate language from the court reporter, followed by…nothing.
What happened? What happened was that Poole and London became frightened for their lives and fled the courtroom—and Laurel—before delivering their closing arguments. Years later, Poole told Spivak that he was tipped off on Saturday afternoon by a highway patrolman. “[He] came up to me and said, ‘Poole, I just want to tell you that a group of fellows over there are after you. Be on your toes. Just watch out. They’re not so much—they’re not after London so much as you. So watch yourself.’”
Poole was aware of the story that Troy Hawkins had brought a pistol into the courtroom at the second trial. During a recess, he went back to his hotel, stretched out on his bed, and thought about his predicament.
“[I] looked over the situation and realized what happened to Dixon,” he told Spivak. “What a situation they were in, and then a group of fellows after me. They’re a pretty vicious crowd down there. No friends. I got scared. We go back, report all these facts to the judge. We tell the judge we’re not going to argue to the jury.”
Poole asked the sheriff for a safe escort as he got ready to leave Laurel, but he refused. The sheriff did, however, show Poole and London a back exit from the courthouse, via the catwalk. And with that, the boys from Jackson exercised their last and best strategic maneuver: They jumped in their car and got the hell out of town.