To Kill a Misconception
Alex Heard goes back in time to re-examine an infamous court case
The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South
In his just-released book The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, New Mexico-based journalist and Outside Magazine editorial director, Alex Heard takes a hard look at the court cases thought to have inspired To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is simple: In 1945 a black man named Willie McGee was accused of raping a white woman, Willette Hawkins. While Mockingbird sticks with the original case, in which the accused’s lawyer stands up for him despite race and uncovers a secret affair, Eyes follows McGee’s case all the way to the Supreme Court. Heard’s investigation paints a picture of the segregated South and calls into question the stories of both the defendant and the victim. Hear the rest of the story when Heard speaks at Bookworks this week. The Alibi spoke with Heard by phone last week about the trial, the book and civil rights.
What was the inspiration for exploring such an old court case?
I first heard about this case a long time ago, when I was in college, where I had a student adviser who was from that part of Mississippi. He was 20-years-old when this case came to a conclusion, with an execution, and he made a tape recording of the broadcast of the execution. He used to play that for students, just to jolt us a little bit. It really hadn’t been that long ago; the execution was in 1951, and this was in the late ’70s. I’d forgotten about it for many years but saw a reference to it briefly in another book and decided to look into it. The more I did, the more I realized that while the case had been famous in its day, it had really been forgotten about. I realized it was a great story in its own right but also a way to tell the story of that period in the civil rights movement, before it really kicked off.
When we learn about the civil rights movement in school, we learn about the ’50s but not really anything leading up to that.
[The civil rights movement] started after the Civil War, but it really kicked in in the 20th century with the creation of the NAACP. Then, after World War II, there was a rival group that the Communist Party started called the Civil Rights Congress. They did the same thing; a lot of civil rights activities in the ’40s consisted of fighting it out over these court cases where an African-American was accused of rape or murder. There was a period where the two groups would compete, like with this McGee case, and see who took it and ran with it.
It was dangerous to go down there and work on that case. Two of the lawyers in the third trial were literally chased out of town under threat of physical violence.
Was the focus on legal cases a way to introduce other kinds of laws?
There wasn’t much in the way of civil rights legislation in the ’40s. Truman tried a few bills, but they didn’t really go anywhere, so a lot of what we think of as civil rights activity centered on criminal cases. There wasn’t great constitutional law happening just yet, although that was starting to happen.
How did you find information on such an old case?
I noticed that what had been written on the web and in a few books here and there didn’t match up. The accounts were different, so I started to think no one had really researched it all the way. ... When I started, I didn’t know if I’d be able to find anything until I got to Mississippi and then Washington, D.C., where I found there actually was pretty good documentation. There were three trials because it was reversed a couple times, and transcripts of two of those trials survived in full, which is hard to find. There was also a treasure trove of papers [from] the Civil Rights Congress, which are kept in Harlem, including interviews with the lawyers who defended McGee and dozens of letters that he and his mother and his wife wrote throughout those years.
What about the lawyers? At the time, it couldn’t have been a popular decision to take on this case.
We’ve all read To Kill a Mockingbird and the Atticus Finch character; his motives for doing it are just that he’s sort of a straight shooter. He’s not a crusading liberal or a civil rights progressive. He gives a good picture of why a lawyer like that would do this in the ’30s. They did it because they thought the defendant deserved an adequate defense. It sounds corny now, but the lawyers that I profile from Mississippi, that was pretty much it. They got paid, so it wasn’t like they were volunteering—they didn’t get paid a fortune and they knew it would be politically damaging, but they all said he’s a criminal defendant, just like anyone else, and he needs to be represented. It was dangerous to go down there and work on that case. Two of the lawyers in the third trial were literally chased out of town under threat of physical violence.
What do you hope people get out of the book?
A clearer picture of what happened. It has been said that the woman wasn’t raped at all but trapped McGee into a love affair. As I looked into that case, there was a fair amount of doubt that this affair happened. If people read this book, they’ll need to contemplate, what if this really happened to her, if she really was raped? She’s been demonized and become a Jezebel of sorts, but it’s possible that this really did happen the way she said it did.
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