A gripping saga of race and retribution in the Deep South and a story whose haunting details echo the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird
In 1945, Willie McGee, a young African-American man from Laurel, Mississippi, was sentenced to death for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. At first, McGee's case was barely noticed, covered only in hostile Mississippi newspapers and far-left publications such as the Daily Worker. Then Bella Abzug, a young New York labor lawyer, was hired by the Civil Rights Congressan aggressive civil rights organization with ties to the Communist Party of the United Statesto oversee McGee's defense. Together with William Patterson, the son of a slave and a devout believer in the need for revolutionary change, Abzug and a group of white Mississippi lawyers risked their lives to plead McGee's case. After years of court battles, McGee's supporters flooded President Harry S. Truman and the U.S. Supreme Court with clemency pleas, and famous Americansincluding William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Norman Mailer, and Josephine Bakerspoke out on McGee's behalf.
By the time the case ended in 1951 with McGee's public execution in Mississippi's infamous traveling electric chair, "Free Willie McGee" had become a rallying cry among civil rights activists, progressives, leftists, and Communist Party members. Their movement had succeeded in convincing millions of people worldwide that McGee had been framed and that the real story involved a consensual love affair between him and Mrs. Hawkinsone that she had instigated and controlled. As Heard discovered, this controversial theory is a doorway to a tangle of secrets that spawned a legacy of confusion, misinformation, and pain that still resonates today. The mysteries surrounding McGee's case live on in this provocative tale of justice in the Deep South.
Based on exhaustive documentary researchcourt transcripts, newspaper reports, archived papers, letters, FBI documents, and the recollections of family members on both sidesMississippi native Alex Heard tells a moving and unforgettable story that evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, North and South, in America.
…[Heard] surrounds the legal narrative with a rich and knowing context of historical truths. He describes other, clearly unjust capital trials of black men in the period and several horrific lynchings. He details the friction between the Civil Rights Congress and the much larger National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose leaders were suspicious of any defense campaign in which communists had a dominant role. And he sketches the biographies of the local white attorneys who tried to save McGee…On occasion, the lengthy backstories obscure the travails of McGee himself…Still, Heard has produced a book that, in arresting prose, captures a significant slice of the past and a case whose verdict was all but preordained.