The Eyes of Willie McGee
The Eyes of Willie McGee
by Alex Heard
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About the Author-
Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine. He has worked as an editor and writer at The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Wired, and The New Republic, and is the author of Apocalypse Pretty Soon. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
March 29, 2010
An iconic criminal case—a black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman in Mississippi in 1945—exposes the roiling tensions of the early civil rights era in this provocative study. McGee's prosecution garnered international protests—he was championed by the Communist Party and defended by a young lawyer named Bella Abzug (later a New York City congresswoman and cofounder of the National Women's Political Caucus), while luminaries from William Faulkner to Albert Einstein spoke out for him—but journalist Heard (Apocalypse Pretty Soon
) finds the saga rife with enigmas. The case against McGee, hinging on a possibly coerced confession, was weak and the legal proceedings marred by racial bias and intimidation. (During one of his trials, his lawyers fled for their lives without delivering summations.) But Heard contends that McGee's story—that he and the victim, Willette Hawkins, were having an affair—is equally shaky. The author's extensive research delves into the documentation of the case, the public debate surrounding it, and the recollections of McGee and Hawkins's family members. Heard finds no easy answers, but his nuanced, evocative portrait of the passions enveloping McGee's case is plenty revealing. Photos.
The Chicago Tribune
"The Eyes of Willie McGee should be must reading for serious students of 20th century U.S. history. . . . A vivid, and essential, story of a rape trial and conviction, lynch mobs and complex personal relationships."
John Grisham, author of The Innocent Man
"The case of Willie McGee is an enduring mystery, but there's no doubt he was the victim of a primitive and unfair judicial system. Alex Heard's excellent account of his life and death is tragic, sad, and very compelling."
Jon Meacham, author of American Lion
"In this gripping story of a world at once remote yet painfully familiar, Alex Heard has crafted a memorable narrative of a civil rights case that deserves a larger place in American memory."
Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein
"In this riveting personal journey, Alex Heard explores the political and social forces at play and then reveals the fascinating human drama underneath it all. It's like a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird, but with even more subtlety and complexity."
Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy
"The Eyes of Willie McGee re-creates a drama of race, class, crime, and politics that helped set the stage for both the McCarthy Era and the civil rights revolution. Heard's story reads like "Radical Chic" in 1940s Mississippi. It's a gripping, disturbing treat."
Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge
"A stout argument can now be made that the execution of Willie McGee in 1951 launched the civil rights movement. A stunning narrative achievement based on a bevy of new documentary evidence. Essential reading for all Americans."
Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will
"The story of Willie McGee was one of the most haunting cases to come out of the forcibly segregated, violence-ridden South in its time. Alex Heard uses McGee's story to shed light on an America we'd like to forget--a time when mob rule and lynching prevailed. A magisterial book."
Mary Roach, author of Stiff
"Alex Heard has peeled back the tarp on the American South ten long years before Rosa Parks boarded the bus. Willie McGee is the epicenter of an addictive mystery that draws you in even as it repels you. This is an extraordinary book."
The New York Times Book Review
"Heard succeeds impressively. . . . Through gritty, precise reporting, he reveals the human cost of mob violence and 'legal lynchings' in Mississippi. . . . Heard tells of those who fought against lynchings and of those who died in their midst. . . . A rich narrative."
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