One of the most notorious racial conflicts of the 1940s is the focus of a reading and lecture presentation June 2 at the University of Mississippi. Alex Heard, author of “The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South” (Harper, 2010), will discuss the case that inspired his book at 9 a.m. in the Overby Center Auditorium. Free and open to the public, the program is sponsored by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
Heard, a Mississippi native and UM alumnus, is editorial director of Outside magazine. He has worked as an editor and writer at The New York Times Magazine, Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, Slate and other publications. McGee, a young black man from Laurel, was sentenced to death in 1945 for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. At first, McGee’s case was barely noticed, covered only in hostile Mississippi newspapers and far-left publications such as The Daily Worker.
Then Bella Abzug, a young New York labor lawyer, was hired by the Civil Rights Congress – an aggressive arm of the Communist Party in the U.S. – to oversee McGee’s defense. During years of courtroom battles and groundbreaking protests, McGee’s supporters, including William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Norman Mailer and Josephine Baker, spoke out on his behalf and flooded President Harry S. Truman and the U.S. Supreme Court with clemency pleas.
By the time the case ended in 1951 with McGee’s public execution, “Free Willie McGee” had become a rallying cry among civil rights activists, progressives, leftists and Communist Party members, who had succeeded in convincing millions of people that McGee was framed. They contended that the real story involved a secret affair between McGee and Hawkins, one that she instigated and controlled.
But as Heard discovered through years of research, this alibi may have been fabricated by McGee and his defenders in a desperate attempt to save his life, leaving a legacy of confusion, misinformation and pain that still resonates. Heard’s book has been praised as an unforgettable story that evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, North and South in America.
For more information on the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, go to http://www.winterinstitute.org/. For assistance related to a disability, call 662-915-6734.