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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THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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