A thorough revisiting of the 1945 Mississippi black-white rape case that ended in the electric chair.
Determining that there were too many holes in the case against Willie McGee—despite three trials, appeals and public outcry—Outside editorial director Heard (Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, 1999), born in Jackson, Miss., decided to start his investigation from scratch, along the way consulting primary sources, trial transcripts, FBI documents and archived papers. McGee, a black grocery-delivery driver in Laurel, was accused of raping a white married woman and mother of three, Willette Hawkins, after breaking into her home at dawn on Nov. 2, 1945. By Mississippi law, the death penalty could be applied for rape, though only African-Americans had suffered that punishment. Heard wades through reams of obfuscation around the case—much of it concocted by desperate supporters associated with the Civil Rights Congress and McGee’s lawyers, including the young Bella Abzug—alleging that McGee and Hawkins were actually having an illicit affair, that Hawkins might have been pregnant by McGee and that blackmail was involved. To reach a sense of the facts, the author tracked down several of the children of both McGee and Hawkins and exposed some convincing angles, such as that Hawkins was traumatized by the rape, and that McGee’s real wife had been abandoned, while the woman presented to the public as his wife was someone he had only met in jail and corresponded with. Heard does a fine job presenting horrific documentation of the practice of lynching in the South—McGee initially confessed out of terror for his life—and of the general culture of racism perpetrated by Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo and others.
Due to the suspicion of Communist intentions at the time, the widely accepted defamation of Hawkins’s character and the outrageous injustice against blacks systematically practiced in the South, there is no way to discover “what really happened.” However, the author undertakes painstaking detective work to engagingly explore an era of deep-seated racial hatred.