July 26, 1950—Heeding an appeal two days earlier by
future Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Supreme Court Associate Justice Harold Burton issued a stay of execution for a convicted rapist whose case raised
the issue of the impact of race on the Southern criminal justice system.
The action by Burton, the only Republican among the
four appointed to the high court by President Harry Truman, incensed locals
gathered at the Laurel, Miss., courthouse where the death of Willie McGee
had been eagerly anticipated for the past four years. In annoyed terms that
would echo in reaction to the civil-rights era that would begin in a few years,
they denounced “damn Communists” and “outside interference,” according to a
contemporary report by Time Magazine.
The complainers were referring to Abzug and the group
that had hired her, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), which was
affiliated with the Communist Party and which had, since its founding in 1946,
spearheaded battles for civil rights for African-Americans, and civil liberties
for white and black labor movement radicals. But the CRC victory in 1950 was
short-lived, as the full Supreme Court refused to handle the appeal of the case
and McGee died in the electric chair in May 1951.
I came across a brief description of the McGee case in
Leandra Ruth Zarnow’s recent biography, Battling Bella. It
highlighted Abzug’s courage, as a young New York Jewish woman, in venturing into the
Deep South at a time when Northern white liberals were not only regarded
suspiciously in the region but threatened.
But there was comparatively little in the book about
the defendant. For that, readers may want to check out an NPR news segment from 10 years ago that followed the efforts of his granddaughter to ferret
out the truth. (Two years later, a full-scale account of the case, Alex Heard’s
The Eyes of Willie McGee, would be published.)
The case began in the fall of 1945, when local police
charged McGee with breaking into the home of Willette Hawkins, a 32-year-old white
housewife, threatening her with a knife and raping her, with one of her three
children, her ailing 20-month-old daughter, by her side. McGee’s lawyers at
this point did not mount a vigorous defense, even urging him to plead insanity.
The most damning charge against the prosecution’s case
was the composition of the jury: Not a single Black served on it. Not
surprisingly, it took the 12 men and women only 2½ minutes to sentence McGee to
death. It bears noting that no white man in the state had ever received a death
sentence for rape.
A retrial the following year introduced a new element--a confession supposedly signed by McGee but not introduced at the first trial--but a similar result: conviction in only 12 minutes.
Matters changed dramatically once Abzug was hired by the CRC in 1948. They would press a much more hotly disputed claim: that what happened
between Mrs. Hawkins and McGee was not an assault but a consensual affair. In one stroke, they had touched the proverbial third rail: interracial sexual relations.
At the time of his arrest, supporters would say, McGee
did not dare to make such a claim because he feared for his life—and, indeed,
threats of lynching were so numerous and credible that he had to be transported
in a National Guard truck and dressed in fatigues to conceal his identity.
Still lingering in the atmosphere was the notorious Scottsboro
case, in which nine African-American youths had been charged with raping two
white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. The McGee case had now become a
cause celebre in its own right, as:
*"Save Willie McGee" events and petition
drives were held across America;
*International supporters including Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, and Richard Wright organized a rally in Paris, with similar demonstrations in Moscow and
*William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Lorraine Hansberry, and
Albert Einstein supported McGee.
But, if the CRC attracted publicity to the case, its
Communist affiliation also may have limited its ultimate success. By the time
of Abzug’s dramatic Supreme Court appeal and Burton’s stay of execution, Sen.
Joseph McCarthy had garnered headlines with his sensational claims about
Communists in the State Department.
With the nation in the grip of the Red
Scare, the NAACP, President Truman, and Eleanor Roosevelt—all normally
champions of civil rights—avoided involvement.
McGee’s last message to his wife Rosalie, written the
night before his electrocution, continues to resonate, nearly 70 years later:
To wife Rosalie, the night before he died: “Tell the
people the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro
down….They can’t do this as long as you and the children keep on fighting.
Never forget to tell them why they killed their daddy. I know you won’t fail
me. Tell the people to keep on fighting.”