Books: The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South

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May/June 2010 Issue

In 1945 in Laurel, Mississippi, a black man named Willie McGee was accused of raping a white woman named Willette Hawkins. Despite inconsistencies in the trial testimony that suggested that Hawkins had fabricated the story to cover up an extramarital affair with McGee, an all-white jury convicted him, and a judge sentenced him to death. In The Eyes of Willie McGee, journalist and Mississippi native Alex Heard tells in fascinating detail how this small-town trial snowballed into a landmark battle of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Communist Party lawyers got wind of the case and took up McGee’s appeal, arguing that his sentence was the result of racism—a white man would never be executed for rape. Over nearly six years of new trials and stays of execution, celebrities including William Faulkner and Norman Mailer advocated on McGee’s behalf. But to no avail: McGee was executed in 1951.

Heard is a great storyteller and a meticulous historian, yet his real triumph was convincing both McGee’s and Hawkins’ descendants that he “wasn’t in this to take sides, push a political view, or set them up to be humiliated.” It’s their tales of how the case affected them that bring this complicated, emotionally charged story to life.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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