The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
8. A RUMPUS OF REDS
When McGee’s third trial ended—with another death sentence—he was taken back to the Hinds County jail for a second long period of limbo. The first execution date, April 9, 1948, was stayed when Poole and London filed notice that they would appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court. But that appeal wasn’t submitted for another eleven months.
There were differences between this lull and the one that followed McGee’s second trial in 1946. Now that McGee had testified in circuit court, his days as a man of silence were over. He started sending letters to CRC officials in New York, who released them for use in the Daily Worker and in CRC press releases and fund-raising letters.
Dozens of these letters survive in the CRC’s archived papers. Probably because the jailers inspected them before they went out, their content often consisted of simple expressions of gratitude. Many are undated. The first with a clear time stamp is from April 20, 1948. It was addressed to Joseph Cadden, a CRC staffer who had sent McGee a letter and a small amount of money.
“I dont No hardly what to say,” McGee wrote. “[F]or one thing I do really aprechate it and I prays that some day to meet some of the many friends that have been so nice to me…. [I] do believe from the depths of my heart that you all are doing your best for me your kindness shall never be forgotten.”
Before long, though, Willie and Bessie both started sounding worried. The CRC had brought Bessie up to New York after the third trial to give speeches about her son, the case, and the CRC, but after she got back to Laurel she stopped hearing from them.
In a June 1948 letter to Abraham Isserman, she wrote, “My Dear Counsel…. This leave me not feeling well at all. I been sick ever since I left from up there. I am sorry I did not get to see you before I left to come home, but I do want you to write me at once and let me know what about Willie’s trial…. Will you please don’t stop working for Willie. He ask me to writ you all and tell you all to do all you all can for him, so I will close looking to hear from you soon.”
Isserman wrote back, telling her the appeal was under way, but the McGees weren’t mollified. In a letter written in August, Willie expressed two worries: Some of his mail was being withheld by the jailers, and he was in the dark about what his lawyers were doing, because they never came by.
“[I] wont to see my lawyer and i can’t get them to come to see me,” he said. “[T]hey been to see me one time since i been back over here. would you please write them and have them to come to see me.” Just over a month later, nothing had changed, and he became insistent: “I want you all to have My Lawyers to come over here.…I have sent for them and cant get no results at all.”
The CRC hadn’t abandoned McGee. As Isserman said, Poole was working on the state appeal, which didn’t require the defendant’s input since it didn’t involve trial-court preparation. Poole checked in with Isserman in late April, updating him about the appeal and a side development: He and London had decided to sue the Jackson Daily News for libel.
On March 10, 1948, the paper had run an editorial thrashing them both for representing McGee. Called “One Defense Cut Off,” the item was primarily a diatribe about an accused black murderer named Arthur Moore, a sixteen-year-old who had reportedly confessed to killing an insurance collector named J. L. Dean. With an eye on the third McGee trial, which had wrapped up on March 6, the editorial complained that, no doubt, Moore would be the beneficiary of similar interference from up north. “It is now quite in order for the National Association for the Protection of Colored People and the Civil Rights Congress to hire some lousy and conscienceless lawyers to defend this red-handed murderer, as they are now doing in the Willie McGee case in Laurel,” it said.
“Undoubtedly,” Poole told Isserman, “you can well understand the effect of such an editorial, in view of the prejudice of the South on racial matters.” Soon he filed a $100,000 suit in the federal district court in Jackson. It would prove to have serious consequences down the road.
The CRC had problems of its own, including politically motivated legal attacks against its leadership, which grew out of HUAC’s 1947 report labeling the group a Communist front. In April 1948, CRC chairman George Marshall was found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to provide HUAC with records from one of the CRC’s precursor groups, the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., later sentenced him to three months in jail.
Isserman had his hands full too. In addition to the McGee case, he was about to become embroiled in a huge federal trial involving officials of the Communist Party USA. In July 1948, at the federal district court in Manhattan’s Foley Square, prosecutors indicted twelve top-tier party leaders under the Smith Act, a measure from 1940 that made it unlawful to advocate forceful overthrow of the U.S. government. The indictments were short on specifics, but federal officials promised to unravel a sprawling conspiracy by men dedicated to “destroying the Government of the United States by force and violence.”
Unlike the McGee case, the Smith Act trial was a national story from the moment it began, with a July 20 roundup at the Communist Party offices on East Twelfth Street in New York. “Six FBI men walked quietly into…the ninth floor of Communist headquarters,” the Times reported in a front-page piece. “[The agents] showed their badges and merely said, ‘You are under arrest.’”
Among the six were William Z. Foster, chairman of the Communist Party USA and a grand old man of American radicalism; general secretary Eugene Dennis; Jack Stachel, a national board member of the party; and John Williamson, also a board member. Others were arrested in the next few days, including Daily Worker editor John Gates and Gus Hall, the party chairman in Ohio. Southerners undoubtedly noticed that two of the twelve defendants were black: New York City councilman Benjamin Davis and national board member Henry Winston. To them, this supported the view—frequently voiced by commentators in the South—that calls for civil rights were nothing more than the leading edge of a Communist plot.
The CRC put up $35,000 in bail for the twelve, and CRC-and party-affiliated attorneys were involved in their defense from then on. Abraham Unger, whose firm, Unger and Friedman, later defended the Daily Worker in the libel case brought by Mrs. Hawkins, represented the original six during their indictment on the 20th. Isserman became part of a defense team that included attorneys Harry Sacher, George W. Crockett Jr., Richard Gladstein, and Louis McCabe. The trial didn’t get fully under way until March 1949, but everybody could see that it was a case with immense stakes, whether one sympathized with the Communists or not.
“The recent indictment…confronts us with a problem whose perplexity is matched only by its gravity,” Columbia University history professor Henry Steele Commager wrote in the Times. “For it involves far more than the fate of the Communist party alone…. It involves the problem of dissent and nonconformity in our politics. It involves the preservation of constitutional rights of free speech, press and petition, and of political organization by minority groups.” Commager didn’t doubt that American Communists desired revolutionary change—“If they deny this charge, they are self-confessed frauds”—but he opposed the case on constitutional grounds. The twelve were being pursued for advocating a set of ideas. They hadn’t been caught in a concrete plot to overthrow the government. But under the Smith Act, their ideas were the plot.
For Communists, CRC members, and civil libertarians, the indictments seemed like a blatant political move by the Truman administration, designed to discredit anybody on the left—including Henry Wallace and his running mate, Idaho senator Glen H. Taylor—who stood in the way of his supposed desire to start a war with the Soviet Union. In a press release, the National Committee of the Communist Party went characteristically overboard, calling the charges an “American version of the Reichstag Fire.”
“Terrified of the growing support for the Wallace-Taylor ticket,” the statement said, “the Democratic high command is seeking to brand the new party as ‘criminal’ because among the opponents of Wall Street’s two old parties and their candidates are the Communists, who also join with all other progressives in supporting the new people’s anti-war party.”
That summer, Republicans were feeling giddy about the Thurmond and Wallace insurgencies, because they seemed to ensure a victory in November by their candidate, Thomas Dewey. It didn’t pan out, so it’s easy to forget how bad it looked for Truman at the time—and for how long. The Chicago Daily Tribune (“DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”) wasn’t the only organization to miss the call. Pollsters blew it too, as did the Washington Post and New York Times. Two days before the election in November, a front-page Times story stated that Dewey would win easily, 345 electoral votes to 105.
On Election Day, there was enough doubt about Dewey—not to mention Thurmond and Wallace—to make voters return to a familiar face. The final count was 303 electoral votes for Truman, 189 for Dewey, 39 for Thurmond, and none for Wallace. Wallace had hoped to do much better; there had been talk of him attracting between 3 and 5 million votes. He got 1.15 million, far short of Truman’s 24-million-plus. And though Wallace was on the ballot in three times as many states as Thurmond, who ran a regional candidacy based on resistance to civil rights legislation, Thurmond beat him in total vote count by more than 18,000.
What explained the weak showing? Communism, as much as anything. Wallace wasn’t a Communist—he saw himself as the defender of what was left of New Deal liberalism—but his campaign attracted enthusiastic backing from Communist Party members like Foster and Dennis, as well as from controversial party supporters like Paul Robeson.
This uneasy relationship had been building for a while. There wasn’t a Communist presidential candidate in 1948, so people on the far left needed somewhere to go. At the 1947 May Day parade in New York, party members, enthralled with a recent Wallace speech critical of the Truman Doctrine, marched along beneath a fifty-foot-tall image of their new mainstream hero, complete with a huge text block of his words.
Wallace knew that Communist support would hurt more than it helped, and while he publicly denounced Red-baiting by the Truman administration, he tried to maintain safe separation. As his biographers John C. Culver and John Hyde point out, he made attempts to “distance himself from U.S. Communist Party members, saying the few he had met ‘sounded kind of pathetic, like poor, lonesome souls.’” Communists also tried to convey that their dalliance with Wallace had limits. Foster declared in one speech that Wallace’s Progressive Party, with its deluded belief that capitalism could somehow be saved, “is in no sense a Communist Party…we Communists have many points of difference with it and we do not hesitate to express them.”
Still, it didn’t help that Wallace supporters often made extreme statements. In an April 1948 speech at Columbia, the novelist Howard Fast—later the author of Spartacus, and both a Wallace man and a Communist Party member—denounced Truman and his crew as “obscene, hideous people who can sign a death warrant that will murder 50,000,000 people without a thought.” Foster, testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in May, said that in any war between the United States and the Soviet Union, he could not fight against the U.S.S.R.
The result in some quarters was a rugged referendum on whether Wallace—who had been an extremely capable public servant in his prime—was an idiot, a paid agent of Stalin, or both. In his 1948 book, Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth, literary critic Dwight Macdonald wrote that Wallace’s apologies for Stalinism came about because “a large power-mass like the Soviet Union exercises a tremendous gravitational pull on an erratic comet like Henry Wallace. In the past year, this pull has become so powerful—or the resistance has been so weakened—that Wallace’s Comet appears to have become a satellite of the larger body.”
Wallace never got involved in the McGee case—he left public life before it took off—but many of his followers did, providing Progressive Party support for McGee in 1950 and 1951 that was just as important as his Communist Party backing. Bella Abzug’s partner during the 1951 appeals process was John M. Coe, a former state senator and highly experienced lawyer based in Pensacola, Florida, who had volunteered to help coordinate Wallace’s Florida campaign. Sidney Ordower, a Chicagoan who came to Mississippi in 1950 as part of a delegation seeking a gubernatorial pardon for McGee, ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Wallace man in Illinois.
These people weren’t Communists, but they weren’t Truman Democrats either. They were hard-left liberals whose views on issues like civil rights put them far ahead of the curve in 1948. Doomed though Wallace was as a candidate, he inspired them and thousands of others, not least by his quixotic decision to take his campaign into the hostile territory of the South in the summer of 1948.
Wallace had no business campaigning in the South—he won only 225 votes in Mississippi and 154 in South Carolina—but he wanted to make a statement. So, in late August and early September, he scheduled a seven-state tour of Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee, with all his appearances scheduled to take place before desegregated audiences, in defiance of local custom and law.
There was trouble at many of his stops. Prior to a Wallace rally in Durham, North Carolina, a scuffle broke out in the crowd and one Wallace supporter was stabbed (though not fatally) on his arms and back. During a four-town speaking tour the next day, Wallace was pelted with eggs, tomatoes, peach pits, and cries of “Hey, Communist” and “Hey, nigger lover.” In Hickory, North Carolina, the New York Times reported, “The barrage was so heavy that for the first time Mr. Wallace quit his talk abruptly and paraphrased a passage from Scripture for his tormentors.
“‘As Jesus Christ told his disciples,’ he said, ‘when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere….’”
By the time Wallace got to Mississippi, violence seemed likely, but it didn’t happen, despite provocative editorials in local newspapers. The Jackson Daily News warned that Wallace’s only purpose was to “spread the doctrine of Communism and promote racial antagonism and strife. Therefore, by all the principles and traditions the South holds dear, Henry Wallace is a public enemy.”
Neither Governor Wright nor Wallace seemed eager for trouble. Wallace stopped in Jackson only long enough to file a slate of electors and criticize Wright in a radio speech, saying he substituted “prejudice for reason” on racial matters. Wright provided him with a highway-patrol escort to his most important appearance during this leg of the trip: the Mississippi River town of Vicksburg, about as Deep South as it got. Vicksburg had been the target of the greatest siege campaign of the Civil War, which ended when General Ulysses S. Grant conquered it on July 4, 1863. Until 1945, the town ignored the Fourth of July.
Unexpectedly, not a single egg, fist, or peach pit was thrown, partly because Wright had publicly asked Mississippians to treat Wallace with respect. Wallace spoke outside the Vicksburg courthouse to an unsegregated crowd of 200. Before he took the mike, twenty-nine-year-old folk singer Pete Seeger—who accompanied Wallace during his Southern tour—suggested that everybody join together and sing a song.
“A sullen looking youth snapped out, ‘Dixie,’” a Washington Post reporter wrote. “To his astonishment, Seeger went into Dixie. He knew every word of it, and played and sang it with gusto.
“The would-be heckler was furious, and began muttering. Police Chief [L. C.] Hicks moved alongside and told him to sit down and keep quiet. He did.”
In the McGee case, the other crucial development in the summer of 1948 was the emergence of William L. Patterson as the head of the CRC. Patterson was an African-American lawyer and Communist who, by then, had already put in more than twenty years as an organizer, civil rights theoretician, and student of Marxist-Leninist theory and tactics, which he learned during lengthy stays in Russia that took place from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1934 to 1937. While there, he married a Russian woman with whom he had two daughters, but his Russian family couldn’t come with him when he returned to the United States in 1937. Patterson took over the CRC at fifty-seven, after George Marshall’s imprisonment, moving to New York from Chicago in July and bringing a level of energy and drive that altered the CRC’s trajectory. His credo was that action in courtrooms had to be matched by mass political protests, a tactic he’d learned through his involvement with the two most famous left-wing causes of the 1920s and 1930s: the murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and the capital rape trials of the Scottsboro Boys. As Patterson explained in his 1971 autobiography, The Man Who Cried Genocide, his experiences working on these and other cases left him with little faith in the American legal system’s ability to provide justice to politically unpopular or racially oppressed defendants. The outcomes were rigged, he wrote, especially in the South, where it was futile for “a Black American to rely solely on U.S. laws—administered and manipulated by racists—as liberating instruments.”
This didn’t mean abandoning the law as a tool. After all, much of what the CRC did involved criminal-defense work. But it did mean that public protest was as important as courtroom tactics. Writing about the CRC’s various causes during the postwar years—it was active in several legal fights on behalf of allegedly railroaded black defendants, as was the NAACP—Patterson said, “It was proved beyond doubt that mass indignation and protest action had to be mobilized in overwhelming degree to make any dent at all in the solid front of blind bigotry. Such demonstrations do not guarantee a people’s justice, but without them the hope is slim indeed.”
Patterson’s path to the helm of the CRC had been long, colorful, and complicated. As he recounted in The Man Who Cried Genocide, he was the son of a former slave, Mary Galt, who was born on a Virginia plantation in 1850, and whose mother was the offspring of the white plantation owner and a slave with whom he sired three children.
Before the Civil War started, the owner sent his “Black family” west to San Francisco, when Mary was ten. She grew up, married a man who later died, and sometime in the late 1880s married James Edward Patterson, a native of the British West Indies who had been a seaman. William Patterson wasn’t certain about his birth date—he believed it was August 27, 1891—nor did he know his father well. James became a Seventh-day Adventist, going away frequently on missionary trips in other countries.
These experiences—along with physical abuse he suffered at his father’s hands—left Patterson bitter against both his father and religion. In a biographical statement written for Communist Party officials in 1939, which the FBI later obtained for the 5,000-page file it kept on Patterson, he wrote, “My early family life was one of poverty. My father was a fanatical [S]eventh Day Adventist. He had been a steward on the Pacific Mail Steamship lines but [quit] and gave everything he had to the church…. The religious atmosphere was tense, training strict.”
Patterson graduated from high school in 1911, when he was twenty years old, enrolled at Berkeley, dropped out, worked for a while, and in 1915 started taking law classes at the University of California, San Francisco. He got his first exposure to Marxism when he walked into a Bay Area bookstore that sold publications like the Masses and the Messenger. The ideas clicked, and for the rest of his life Patterson never lost faith that Communism was the way out for black Americans, a liberating force for a people who, he believed, had been subjected to organized genocide. In a speech written a few months after the end of World War II, he said, “What the Jew is to Germany, the Negro is to Fascist-minded Americans. The Soviet Union is the friend of all oppressed people. We must seek great changes in the system we now have. I speak as a Communist and I [say] that my party will be in the forefront of the battle.”
Patterson finished law school at twenty-seven and explored the idea of moving to Liberia, the West African nation colonized in the nineteenth century by former American slaves. He got as far as England before changing his mind and coming back, this time settling in New York. He found a room in Harlem, where he met his first wife, Minnie Summer, and Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who would later marry Paul Robeson. Through Summer, Patterson met Robeson in 1920, when Robeson was still studying law at Columbia.
By then, Robeson was already on a rapid rise to fame. At Rutgers, where he graduated in 1919, he was a four-sport athlete and a first-team All-American in football. He also sang, acted, debated, and excelled academically—he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, delivered his class’s commencement speech, and wrote a senior thesis called “The Fourteenth Amendment, the Sleeping Giant of the American Constitution,” which, according to his biographer Martin Bauml Duberman, “proceeded to interpret it in a way that prefigured the eventual use of that amendment as a civil-rights weapon.”
Patterson was further along the path to radicalism than Robeson, who spent most of the 1920s and 1930s performing in such Broadway and Hollywood productions as The Emperor Jones, Show Boat, and Othello. Robeson didn’t become openly political until the late 1930s, when he supported the anti-Fascist side during the Spanish Civil War.
For Patterson, the catalyst was the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born workers and anarchists who were sentenced to death in 1921 after being convicted of killing two payroll escorts, Alessandro Berardelli and Frederick Parmenter, during an armed robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The debate about their guilt or innocence—which goes on still—was hopelessly tangled up with their politics. They were members of the Galleanists, an Italian-American anarchist group whose followers were suspected in a string of bombings that occurred after the end of World War I. In June 1919, anarchists were accused of setting off bombs in eight U.S. cities, including one at the Washington, D.C., home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The Palmer device went off prematurely, killing the bomber and sending body parts flying across a residential block of R Street in Northwest Washington. Palmer’s neighbor, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, found human remains on his steps the next morning.
Such episodes spurred a massive federal crackdown on suspected anarchists and Communists that became known as the Palmer Raids. In November 1919, Justice Department agents, armed with deportation warrants, rounded up hundreds of people in cities all over the country, often basing their arrests on extremely flimsy evidence. In December, nearly 250 people with suspected anarchist, Socialist, or Communist ties were shipped to the Soviet Union on an old troop transport ship called the Buford, which was popularly known as “the Soviet Ark.” By early 1920, the raids had led to the arrest of some 10,000 suspects and the creation of a new General Intelligence Division in the Justice Department. The man in charge of collecting names was J. Edgar Hoover, then just twenty-four.
In the eyes of their supporters, Sacco and Vanzetti faced execution only because they held unpopular views and were foreign born. Many people at the time—not all of them radicals—believed that the trial judge, Webster Thayer, was so clearly biased that a retrial should have been automatic. Among those supporting a second look were establishment fixtures like Harvard Law School professor (and future Supreme Court justice) Felix Frankfurter, who wrote an influential 1927 article about the case in the Atlantic Monthly. Frankfurter dissected a 25,000-word opinion by Thayer—in which Thayer denied Sacco and Vanzetti a retrial based on new evidence—calling it “a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations, suppressions, and mutilations.”
Patterson came to the case late, participating in public protests that occurred on the eve of the execution. On August 22, 1927, he was arrested during a march in front of the Massachusetts statehouse, an incident that was described later in Upton Sinclair’s Boston, a “documentary novel” about the case published in 1928.
“There was John Dos Passos, faithful son of Harvard,” Sinclair wrote, “…and William Patterson, a Negro lawyer from New York, running the greatest risk of any of them, with his black face not to be disguised. Just up Beacon Street was the Shaw Monument, with figures in perennial bronze, of unmistakable Negro boys in uniform, led by a young Boston blue-blood on horseback; no doubt Patterson had looked at this, and drawn courage from it.”
Patterson was chased by a mounted trooper and arrested by a policeman who said, “Well, this is the first time I ever see a nigger bastard that was a communist.” For him, the experience was a one-way push into a life of protest battles, dangerous dissent, and front-line involvement in numerous historic fights over civil rights and civil liberties.
“I had come back to New York as from a university—but a people’s university,” he wrote of his Boston baptism. “I would follow another road of struggle. My law career had come to an end.”
The cause that really shaped Patterson was Scottsboro, a multi-defendant interracial rape case in rural Alabama that became a worldwide news story starting in 1931. He wasn’t on the margins that time. During the early years of this historic legal battle, which dragged on through most of the 1930s and into the 1940s, Patterson was in charge of a group called International Labor Defense (ILD), a forerunner of the CRC. The ILD organized much of the Scottsboro defense effort, which was aimed at saving the lives of a group of young African-American males who faced execution on a dubious rape charge.
All the tactics employed in Scottsboro—inside courtrooms, on the streets, and in news media—would be used again by Patterson during the later years of the McGee case, and it’s easy to see why: In Scottsboro, ultimately, they worked. Against the odds, and with significant effort from people who had no connection to (or affection for) the ILD, all of the Scottsboro Boys were saved from death. But there were important differences between the two cases, and as McGee’s defenders would learn, it didn’t always work to apply the same tactics, especially during the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War.
The Scottsboro story began on March 25, 1931, when nine men and boys—ranging in age from thirteen to twenty—were arrested after hopping a Chattanooga-to-Memphis freight train that dipped south out of Tennessee on its way west. In the northeastern Alabama town of Stevenson that afternoon, a station master was startled by the appearance of several white hobos who said they’d been thrown off the train after losing a fight with a “bunch of negroes.”
The station master called ahead to the town of Scottsboro, but the train had already passed through. By the time it reached Paint Rock, twenty miles to the west, law enforcement officials had been notified and a posse was waiting. At first, the nine were suspected only of vagrancy and assault, but the stakes changed with the discovery that two female freight-hoppers were also on board: young white women in overalls and caps named Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Price told a deputy sheriff they’d been gang-raped by the blacks. The men were immediately taken to jail in Scottsboro, the county seat, where a lynch mob started to form once word got around. Alabama’s governor dispatched twenty-five National Guardsmen, but the night’s chilly weather was probably more of a factor in the crowd’s decision to break up and go home.
Just as in the first McGee trial, the indictments happened fast, and the suspects were assigned second-rate lawyers. The cases were split up, with the first two defendants, Clarence Norris and Charlie Weems, going before a jury together on April 6. The atmosphere at the Jackson County Courthouse was predictably tense. Inside, the courtroom was packed with locals who wanted to see guilty verdicts and death sentences come quickly. Outside, thousands of people had gathered to take in the show, and by necessity there were armed troops everywhere.
Norris and Weems were represented by an elderly local named Milo C. Moody and a Chattanooga, Tennessee, lawyer, Stephen R. Roddy, who appeared to be drunk in court. The state’s star witness was Victoria Price, who testified that she and Bates were in an open gondola car with seven white men when a dozen blacks leaped over the side and beat up the whites, ejecting all but one. Price said two of the intruders were waving pistols and that they all had knives. She claimed that Norris came up to her and said, “Are you going to put out?” After that, she said, six men raped her.
As historian Dan T. Carter explained in his 1969 book, Scottsboro—a classic history of the case—Price’s testimony was controversial from the start. Two doctors testified who had examined the women within ninety minutes of the alleged rape. Dr. R. R. Bridges said that, based on semen samples he’d taken, it appeared that both women had had intercourse sometime prior to his examination, but he couldn’t say when, and he said there was no sign of genital bruising or tearing that would indicate sexual assault. “She was not lacerated at all,” he said of Price. “She was not bloody, neither was the other girl.” A second doctor, Marvin Lynch, concurred: “There was nothing to indicate any violence about the vagina.”
Bates testified the next day, agreeing with Price but giving different details. “Victoria gave a colorful description of a desperate struggle with guns blazing, a pistol-whipping, and ending with the white boys leaving in an effort to save their lives,” Carter wrote, while Bates described only verbal arguments and a minor scuffle.
Even before the first-trial jury had left the courtroom, the second trial began—this time, of a defendant who would become the best-known Scottsboro Boy, eighteen-year-old Haywood Patterson. Price testified again, as did Bates. Right after Bates stepped down in the Patterson case, the judge, Alfred E. Hawkins, was told that the jury in the Norris and Weems trial had reached a verdict. The Patterson jury was taken into a side room while the decision was read: guilty, with punishment fixed at death. Outside, the crowd greeted the news with a cheer, and it was obvious that the Patterson jury had heard the noise. This would come up when the case was appealed, but, for the moment, the verdicts just kept coming. Patterson was found guilty the next day, April 8. Five other defendants—Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, Andrew Wright, and Willie Roberson—were convicted on the 9th. A mistrial was declared in the case of Leroy Wright, who was only thirteen, because the jurors couldn’t decide whether his youth warranted a sentence of life in prison instead of death.
Judge Hawkins sentenced the eight men to die by electrocution at Montgomery’s Kilby Prison on July 10, but the case would go on much longer than that. As the first trials drew to a close, both the ILD and the Communist Party made public statements denouncing the proceedings as a sham, and letting Hawkins know that capable reinforcements were on the way to save the defendants’ lives.
After the first trials, the ILD entered into a struggle for control of the cases with the NAACP, which, though slow in responding to the arrests, indicated a strong desire to represent the Scottsboro nine going forward. The ILD prevailed, partly through old-fashioned persistence. Organization lawyers hurried south to line up local legal help, interview the defendants in jail, and nail down the cooperation of their parents.
But the ILD sometimes played dirty, and the NAACP’s mistrust of Communist legal-defense groups started with Scottsboro. On April 15, 1931, the Daily Worker went on the attack, claiming that the NAACP’s sluggish reaction time proved that its leaders were “traitors to the Negro masses and betrayers of the Negro liberation struggle.”
In late 1932, after the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the first-trial verdicts, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case. In Powell v. Alabama, a landmark decision issued on November 7, the Court ruled that the defendants had been denied adequate representation, because the trial was rushed and unfair. “It is perfectly apparent that the proceedings from beginning to end took place in an atmosphere of tense, hostile and excited pubic sentiment,” the opinion said. “During the entire time, the defendants were closely confined or were under military guard.” Appointment of counsel happened so close to the time of the trial, the Court added, that it amounted to “denial of effective and substantial aid in that regard.”
As preparations got under way for new trials, the responsibility for picking a new lawyer fell to Patterson, who had taken over as leader of the ILD in September 1932. He hired a New Yorker named Samuel Leibowitz, a top defense specialist who was known for winning murder cases. Because of his clout and independent means, Leibowitz was able to take the case and keep control of it, something that wouldn’t be possible for Bella Abzug when she represented McGee. He let the ILD know he was in charge, and that he would quit if their public statements and protest actions caused him any problems. With some exceptions, he got his way.
Not surprisingly, the ILD’s presence—and Leibowitz himself—angered people in Alabama, who didn’t like the idea of Northerners, Communists, or Jews coming in to interfere. During Leibowitz’s first courtroom defense—of Haywood Patterson in April 1933—his arguments so antagonized whites in the town of Decatur, that when Patterson was put on trial a second time, rumors started spreading about a lynch mob. National Guardsmen had infiltrated a meeting where some 200 men talked about killing the defendants and running Leibowitz out of town. The new trial judge, James E. Horton, stopped the trial to deliver an angry speech about mob action.
“Men who would join in anything that would cause the death of these Negroes not only are murderers, but cowardly murderers,” he said. “The soldiers and the Sheriff’s men are expected to defend these prisoners with their lives. Any man who defies them may expect to forfeit his life.”
Leibowitz had advantages that McGee lawyers like Pyles and Poole later lacked. One was Judge Horton, who put his career on the line to run a fair courtroom. Another was time: Almost five months passed between the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal and the second trial, giving Leibowitz ample opportunity to hunt for new witnesses.
He found some, and he used them to dramatic effect. Leibowitz took dead aim at the credibility of Victoria Price, attempting to prove that she’d fabricated the rape story because she was worried about getting arrested for vagrancy. One new witness, a hobo named Lester Carter, said he and Ruby Bates had had sex two nights before the alleged rape, near a vagrants’ camp outside Huntsville, Alabama. A few feet away from them, he said, amid a tangle of honeysuckle bushes, Price was doing the same thing with a man named Jack Tiller. As Leibowitz explained to the jury, Price and Tiller had a past—they’d been arrested in Huntsville in January 1931 on an adultery charge.
Leibowitz’s biggest surprise was the appearance of Bates, this time as a defense witness. Bates recanted her previous testimony, saying she hadn’t been raped and hadn’t seen a rape. During her time on the stand, Price was brought in to identify her, visibly angry that Bates was changing her story.
Bates’s testimony had elements that backfired, however, thanks to clumsy handling by the ILD. She said that, since her disappearance from Alabama in late February 1933, she’d been in New York, where she’d experienced a religious conversion with help from a pastor. Prosecutors said the ILD had arranged her trip north and had bought expensive new clothes for her, which left the jury wondering if she’d been bought off.
During cross-examination and closing arguments, prosecutors also insinuated that Bates was a Communist dupe. Wade Wright, a county attorney, called Lester Carter “Mr. Carterinsky.” Pointing at the defense table, where Leibowitz sat with an ILD attorney named Brodsky, he urged the jury to “show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” The jury complied. On April 9, Patterson was found guilty a second time and sentenced to death.
There would be other ILD missteps: The most serious came in October 1934, when two ILD attorneys were caught taking part in a scheme to bribe Price to change her testimony. For all his skill and preparation, Leibowitz never won a jury verdict in the Scottsboro cases, and Price never stopped insisting that she’d been raped, so there was no neat resolution. Patterson was tried a third time, in November, after Judge Horton shocked everybody by setting aside his conviction, based on his belief that the evidence didn’t justify a guilty verdict. Horton was replaced by a different judge, and Patterson was found guilty a third time. But Leibowitz set the stage for another appeal, focusing on the same issue that Pyles and Poole would later raise in the second and third McGee trials: race-based jury exclusion.
The details were similar to what Poole would present in Laurel fifteen years later. During the trial before Judge Horton, Leibowitz had questioned county officials about why there were never any black jurors. He resumed this interrogation before the new judge, who ordered that the jury lists from Jackson County be brought in. Officials started reading names into the record, calling out the race of potential jurors as they went. For several hours, every name was white. Late in the day, the Jackson County circuit clerk read out the name of Hugh Sanford, who was black.
So? Leibowitz suspected that Sanford’s name had been added after the lists were first created. He brought in a handwriting expert who said that most or all of the names of black jurors had been inked in after the fact. The judge denied a motion to quash the jury, but Leibowitz had a winning issue for appeal. He argued the case himself before the U.S. Supreme Court in February 1935, a proceeding at which the justices took the unusual step of examining the physical evidence themselves.
On April 1, in Norris v. Alabama, the Court reversed guilty verdicts for Haywood Patterson and Clarence Norris on the grounds of jury exclusion. Even then, the Scottsboro mess persisted. There were more trials and more guilty verdicts, but by 1937, a combination of time, fatigue, and growing doubt saved the defendants’ lives. Four were freed in July. The other five were given long sentences and sent off to prison. Between 1944 and 1947, everybody but Patterson was released, though Andrew Wright wound up back in jail for parole violations. Patterson made the news again in July 1948, when he successfully escaped from Kilby Prison. He disappeared, but he would be heard from again.
Poole and London presented McGee’s third state appeal in late January 1949, focusing on jury exclusion, venue, McGee’s testimony about his coerced confession, the hurry-up trial pace set by Judge Collins, and the consent argument, which they handled more carefully than Pyles had. Mrs. Hawkins, they pointed out, had said herself that she stopped struggling in order to protect the lives of her children. It was a selfless sacrifice. But it still constituted consent, because the court had ruled in a previous case that a rape victim had to keep struggling until the act was consummated.
The judges ruled on April 11, dismissing all five claims and heaping special scorn on the consent argument. “Absence of resistance on account of fear caused by an assailant does not prevent [an] attack from being rape,” they wrote.
Reading between the lines, they detected an even more offensive argument. “The implication of consent here implies a rendezvous between appellant and his victim,” they said. “This cannot be true because in his statement to the officers…appellant said he stopped his truck and entered the home, when he saw a woman lying on the bed…. This revolting insinuation, in other words, finds no proof in support thereof, reflected by the record.”
The judges’ use of “rendezvous” shows that they thought Poole was implying that prearranged sex had occurred. But he didn’t say that, as he explained in a follow-up appeal filed after the court’s initial ruling. “[A]ppellant [argues] that the State failed to prove that the resistance persisted until the act was consummated—not that appellant and the prosecutrix had previously planned the act,” he said. This distinction mattered, because it clarified something that got muddied as the years went by: Poole never claimed that McGee and Mrs. Hawkins had an affair. He left the case before that became part of the defense’s story. Even so, more than any other lawyer, he would suffer professionally when backlash against this line of attack took shape in Mississippi.
The judges, unmoved, set a new death date: June 3, 1949. When the time arrived, the CRC asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay, a move they planned to follow with a formal request for full review of the case. But the Court denied the stay request on the afternoon of June 2—without comment—and in Laurel, preparations immediately began for carrying out the electrocution on schedule. McGee survived that day not because of meddling from Communists or Northern judges. He was spared through the efforts of John Poole, Alvin London, and a Mississippi Supreme Court judge named W. G. Roberds.
In one sense, what happened was a routine paperwork matter. By law, the state supreme court had to grant a stay once Poole’s appeal was signed and filed. The hard part was finding a judge to deal with it. In his interview with Spivak, London maintained that the judges “made it their business not to be available” that afternoon. The execution was halted with under five hours to go. McGee even ate what was supposed to be his last meal.
June 2 was a Thursday. McGee was taken from Hinds County to Jones at 4 p.m., in the custody of Sheriff Steve Brogan. A Laurel Leader-Call reporter, on hand to document McGee’s final hours, heard him pronounce himself ready to die, saying, “I’m not afraid. I’ve made my peace with the Lord. I’m not afraid of anything man can do.”
He was visited in the Laurel jail by Bessie, her sister, and three black ministers—tellingly, there was no mention of a wife being there. He ate at 5:30 p.m.: steak, fries, salad, and iced tea, which he’d requested to be “extra sweet.” He spent the next hour and a half writing letters, including a thank you to Sheriff Brogan for treating him decently. “I hope to meet you in heaven,” he said.
At 6 p.m., a “galvanized iron truck” containing the state’s portable electric chair pulled up and parked outside the courthouse. The chair and its switchboard were set up in the second-floor courtroom. The state’s executioner revved up the motor at around 8 p.m., testing to make sure the generator was ready to deliver its load. Though the executioner didn’t know it yet, by that time the whole thing had already been called off. At around 8:30 p.m., McGee was on his way back to Jackson.
What happened? Poole found his judge. London said Poole learned that Roberds was out playing golf. He tracked him down on the course, hobbling over grass fairways, and got him to sign the papers on the spot. According to London—there’s no other source for this—Roberds not only scribbled in his name but opined that he thought there was something fishy about the case.
“This was about six or seven o’clock in the evening,” London said, “and the Judge said, ‘Well, thank goodness you got here’ or words to that effect and said, ‘I never did believe this fellow was guilty anyhow.’…”
Reportedly, Brogan declined to accept the stay order by telephone, so Poole had to race toward Laurel by car. The CRC quickly issued a dramatic press release (“EXECUTION OF FRAMED NEGRO VET HALTED BY LAST MINUTE ACTION”) that said that Poole and an armed acquaintance had met Brogan on the highway, where he scanned the documents by headlight, releasing his prisoner once he’d read the order. McGee was back in the Hinds County jail by 10:30, visibly shaken and trembling. He told a reporter that “faith in God was the only thing that saved me.”
McGee’s U.S. Supreme Court appeal, filed on August 8, 1949, was submitted by two left-wing lawyers from New York, Samuel Rosenwein and Arthur G. Silverman. Rosenwein had been involved in the Hollywood Ten hearings in 1947, in which HUAC probed alleged Communist infiltration of the film industry. Silverman was a member of the National Lawyers Guild.
Their appeal opened with twelve pages of case recap, followed by five specific claims: that McGee’s confession was coerced, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process; that there was “not a scintilla of competent evidence” other than the controversial confession; that there had been systematic jury exclusion in the selection of the grand and trial juries; that local “prejudice, hostility, and hysteria” warranted a change of venue; and that McGee was denied effective assistance of counsel because the trial was rushed and his lawyers felt threatened. The appeal relied nearly as much on sociology and history as on case law, citing such works as Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (the Swedish economist’s seminal 1944 study of the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination) and the Truman administration document To Secure These Rights.
Every one of the appeal’s legal issues had come up in cases heard previously by the Court, including Brown v. Mississippi—a 1936 decision that reversed three Mississippi murder-case convictions that had relied on violently coerced confessions—Powell v. Alabama, Patton v. Mississippi, and Norris v. Alabama. Each of those cases was cited, with the exception of Norris, the Scottsboro case that involved jury exclusion. It’s unclear why Norriswas left out, but it may be because Poole had neglected a step that Leibowitz had seen to: introducing physical evidence to prove that tampering had occurred with the Jones County jury lists. In any event, Rosenwein and Silverman only put forward the general idea that it was impossible to believe Mississippi officials had suddenly decided to allow black grand jurors without some kind of trickery in play.
The consent argument wasn’t discussed—that was a state issue—but the justices were made aware of it by their clerks, who dismissed it. Rosenwein and Silverman instead emphasized McGee’s ordeal after his arrest, appealing to common-sense skepticism about the state’s claim that he’d confessed freely. He hadn’t been advised of his right to an attorney, they pointed out. He was packed away for thirty days in the Hinds County jail, lacking any contact with a friend or lawyer, while getting repeated visits from “at least a dozen state officials, prosecutors, sheriffs, jailers, police officers,” as well as from McGee’s former boss, Horace McRae, and Troy Hawkins, the husband of his accuser.
“The only possible purpose for bringing the husband of the alleged victim to the petitioner was to frighten and intimidate him,” the appeal said. Nonetheless, “the State’s position appears to be that the period of detention merely afforded the petitioner a quiet period wherein he could freely meditate upon his past and confess his ‘sins’ calmly and with good cheer.”
To see the lie in that, they argued, all you had to do was look at McGee before and after his incarceration. Before, he was “employed as the driver of a motor vehicle, apparently physically able to carry on strenuous work.” After, he was “incapacitated, in a state of nervous collapse and fright bordering on dementia.” Citing language from the Court’s 1945 opinion in a case called Screws v. United States, which concerned a Georgia prisoner who had been beaten to death by a local sheriff, Rosenwein and Silverman tried to position McGee as a man who was being murdered by the system—slowly but surely.
“He has had the forms of a trial; in reality, he had had no trial at all. As the late Justice Murphy stated: ‘He has been deprived of the right to life itself. That right belonged to him not because he was a Negro or a member of any particular race or creed. That right was his because he was an American citizen, because he was a human being.’”
“The late Justice Murphy” was Associate Justice Frank Murphy, a liberal jurist from Michigan. Citing his dissent in Screws was something of an emotional plea, because Murphy had died just three weeks before McGee’s appeal was filed. But there was a logical point to it. In Screws, Murphy was the most passionate advocate for a position that, at the time, was out in front of where many federal judges were willing to go. Namely, that if a state failed to prosecute the kind of crime at the heart of Screws—a race-based murder committed by local officials acting under the authority of state government—the federal government had the right, and the obligation, to pursue justice using federal statutes.
The Screws case originated in southwest Georgia’s Baker County. In January 1943, Sheriff M. Claude Screws arrested a young African-American man named Robert Hall on a trumped-up charge of stealing a car tire. Screws and two other lawmen, Frank Jones and Jim Bob Kelly, then beat him to death outside the county courthouse, with fists and an iron bar. The real motive for all this was a pistol belonging to Hall: Screws had confiscated it, and Hall had started legal proceedings to get it back.
A local grand jury failed to indict the men, so the U.S. Attorney General’s office stepped in. The government charged Screws and his accomplices with violating Hall’s civil rights, basing this on language from a Reconstruction-era statute that prohibited officials from impeding constitutionally protected rights “under color of any law,” be it federal, state, or local. A jury found them guilty and they were sentenced to three years in prison. After a federal appeals court upheld, the state of Georgia filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
The decision was complicated and it centered, in part, on the question of whether the Justice Department had overreached by bringing its indictment, in effect using an archaic federal law to bypass Congress and give the government the anti-lynching power over states that legislators had always refused to pass. Three justices, including Felix Frankfurter, said that it had. “The only issue is whether Georgia alone has the power and duty to punish,” they wrote, “or whether this patently local crime can be made the basis of a federal prosecution.” Murphy disagreed, writing that Screws had unquestionably “deprived Robert Hall of his life without due process.”
Four judges, including Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, recognized the right of the federal government to intervene in such a case, but they voted to reverse this one on a technicality involving jury instructions. Today, Screws is cited as a precedent that helped open the way to a broader application of Fourteenth Amendment protections in civil rights cases. But the more immediate result was an injustice: Screws, Kelley, and Jones were tried again and acquitted.
In its response to McGee’s appeal, the state of Mississippi took aim at the defense’s two most promising arguments: jury exclusion and coercion. In a short brief, Attorney General Greek L. Rice argued that Patton’s requirement had been fulfilled by the presence of blacks on McGee’s third-trial grand jury. On the coercion charge, the state’s argument was simple: The Supreme Court had upheld the idea that state officials had a right to extract confessions as long as this was done without “methods of cruelty.” Rice didn’t address Rosenwein and Silverman’s detailed account of what McGee said had been done to him—instead, he passed over it completely, merely implying that the confession was obtained legally. Given that, he argued, there was no Fourteenth Amendment issue. The Bill of Rights was enacted to protect individuals against the federal government, not against the states. It didn’t apply to state prosecutions unless the state used illegal methods, as had happened in Brown v. Mississippi.
But suppose Mississippi officials were lying and McGee had been tortured? Or that Poole was right when he said the black grand jurors were planted? The justices must have considered these possibilities, because they were discussed in a circulating memo written by Murray L. Schwartz, a law clerk for Chief Justice Fred Vinson during the 1949 term.
Because of the large volume of appeals to the Court, clerks like Schwartz were—and still are—assigned to read the case record, look at the briefs filed by both sides, and write a memo that summarizes the facts and possible grounds for review. The justices considered petitions in regular meetings that were held in secret, and they didn’t release details about their conversations. For the McGee appeal, the only evidence about what went through their minds is a look at what went into them: Schwartz’s ten-page memo, along with a shorter memo by Warren Christopher, a clerk for William O. Douglas who later became secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.
Schwartz reviewed McGee’s five claims in order, starting with jury exclusion. He explained that, after Patton, Mississippi officials said they would obey the law regarding jury selection. He reminded them that voter-registration patterns hadn’t changed, so it was reasonable to ask if states like Mississippi were “making a good faith effort to conform to Patton, or whether they are ignoring that holding or devising means to evade it.” This was hard to answer, because the trial judge had stopped Poole’s attempt to explore this question in court. “It is difficult to evaluate…without a close reading of the record,” he said, “and even then the answer does not come readily.”
That statement was echoed throughout Schwartz’s memo: To settle the questions raised by McGee, the Court would have to conduct its own investigation of disputed facts, in effect retrying the case. Did McGee deserve a change of venue? The state said no, that passions had cooled and, as the Mississippi Supreme Court put it, there was no “latent terrorism in the atmosphere of this trial.”
McGee’s lawyers said they were physically threatened and fled. Had it happened? “[I]t is difficult to imagine what kind of strategy other than a threat of violence would have influenced a defense attorney in a criminal case to fail to make a closing argument,” Schwartz wrote, adding, “Again this would seem to be a factual question which would be extremely difficult for this Court to resolve.”
With McGee’s alleged confessions, the disagreement was sharp: McGee said he was beaten up; the police said he wasn’t. “Assuming the veracity of the police,” Schwartz wrote, “…the determination of the issue depends upon facts which are perhaps available only after a long and close study of the record, plus additional testimony.”
Wrapping up, he reviewed the case in a big-picture way. An African-American man was on trial for rape in Mississippi. The first trial was reversed because of a mob atmosphere. The second because of jury issues. All-white juries had sentenced McGee to death three times, and the defense alleged misconduct.
“On the other side appears the testimony of all the good citizens of Miss…to the effect that after deliberate consideration of all his contentions, petitioner had a fair trial,” he wrote. “And there is much to sustain this argument, if only it can believed that a fair trial under these circumstances can be had in Mississippi.”
The Smith Act trial started in January 1949, minus one defendant—William Z. Foster, whose case was separated because he was ill. In his opening statement, U.S. attorney John F. X. McGohey said he would demonstrate that the goal of any Communist group in a democratic nation was, by definition, overthrow, whatever its leaders said in public. Opposition to capitalist democracies was fundamental to the teachings of Marx and Lenin, and in the United States, change could only come through conspiracy, because voters would never choose Communism at the ballot box. “Remember [the] phrase, Marxism-Leninism,” he said dramatically. “You will hear it frequently throughout the trial.”
The trial lasted seven months from jury selection to verdict, ending on October 14, 1949. The defendants, fully aware that the deck was stacked against them, used the courtroom as a protest forum, often answering questions with rambling rants against U.S. policies, “FBI stoolpigeons,” and the presiding judge, Harold Medina. Early on, Medina warned the defendants and their lawyers that he wouldn’t stand for courtroom “rumpuses” aimed at undermining his authority, but his threat never really stopped the flow of abuse.
Medina was also impatient with more reasonable arguments. In June, he ruled out a stack of anecdotal and journalistic evidence that the defense hoped to introduce, designed to demonstrate that American Communists often worked for social justice in the same way that any progressive political group would, as embodied by groups like the CRC. “Judge Medina said the trial would continue for ‘years and years’ if he admitted in evidence all the speeches, articles, statements and other documents offered to show the defendants had engaged in nonrevolutionary activities to help veterans, youth, workers, Negroes, Jews and other groups with grievances,” the Times reported.
As promised, the government presented an extended lecture about the perils of American Communism, and the sheer volume of testimony was incredible. Toward the end, the Times ran the numbers and estimated that the jury of four men and eight women sat through 158 trial days and 5 million words. The transcript, not counting pretrial challenges and motions, came to 15,000 pages.
McGohey delivered anecdotal evidence heavy on perceived perils and light on tangible proof of a conspiracy. Waving basic texts like Joseph Stalin’s The Fundamentals of Leninism, he and other prosecutors argued that American Communism had made a radical turn in April 1945, when French Marxist Jacques Duclos attacked the leadership of Earl Browder, the general secretary of the American Party at the time. During the war, Browder had tried to rebrand Communism, dissolving the Communist Party and replacing it with the Communist Political Association, a more mainstream political movement that, under the slogan “Communism is 20th Century Americanism,” recommended such heresies as labor-management cooperation. Browder was ousted in 1945 in favor of harder-line types like Foster and Dennis.
That was the dreary gist of the case, though from day to day the trial featured dramatic moments that brought it to life. Benjamin Davis, called in July, gave a good accounting of why a black American might be drawn to the Communist Party in the first place. Davis was from Georgia, where his father was a newspaper publisher, prosperous enough to send Davis to Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1928. During the 1930s, he represented Angelo Herndon, a black Georgia Communist who was given a long prison sentence for violating a Reconstruction-era law with a Smith Act–like provision against advocating forceful resistance to state authority. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned Herndon’s conviction in 1937.
“This case was the turning point of my whole life,” Davis said.
“The judge referred to me and my client as niggers and darkies, and threatened many times to jail me along with my client.
“I was treated in such a way that I could see before me the whole treatment of the Negro people in the South. The fact that I had been luckier than most people in education and income did not shield me from what all Negroes suffered. So I felt if there was anything I could do to fight against this and identify myself fully with my own people and strike a blow against the lynch system, I was determined to do it.”
As it turned out, the fall of 1949 was a period of turbulence and defeats for the Communist Party and the CRC. In late August and early September, riots broke out at two public concerts featuring Paul Robeson, held on the outskirts of Peekskill, New York, in Westchester County. The concerts were fund-raising benefits for the CRC, and during the second of them, anti-Communist protesters smashed car windows and beat up concertgoers, injuring nearly 150 people. Bella Abzug was there, and she took a rock to the chin that left her with a permanent scar.
On October 10, the Supreme Court, without comment, declined to accept the case of Willie McGee. On the 14th, all eleven Smith Act defendants were found guilty. They were sentenced to prison terms, as were some of their lawyers—including Abraham Isserman—after Judge Medina found them guilty of contempt. McGee, of course, faced death, and by the summer of 1950, the Mississippi Supreme Court had set yet another date for his execution: July 27, 1950.