Just minutes after midnight on 8 May 1951, Willie McGee, an African American laborer, was executed in the Jones County courtroom where he had been convicted of raping a white woman more than five years earlier. Fifty witnesses watched as McGee was strapped down and killed in an electric chair placed in front of the jury box, while five hundred white men, women, and children celebrated on the courthouse lawn. The execution brought to an end an international campaign to free McGee on the grounds that his conviction was racist and grossly irregular. The case proved an embarrassment to the United States, which was growing increasingly concerned about its image abroad.
McGee was arrested in November 1945 after Laurel housewife Willette Hawkins accused him of crawling through an open window and raping her as she lay next to her sick child while her husband and two other children slept in nearby rooms. After more than a month in confinement, McGee confessed and was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The members of all-white jury took less than three minutes to reach their decision. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision on the grounds that McGee was not provided a change of venue despite the constant presence of mobs and numerous attempts to intimidate defense lawyers.
A second trial the following year was moved to Hattiesburg, but McGee was again found guilty after the jury deliberated for a mere eleven minutes. He was convicted largely on the strength of a confession that he had allegedly written shortly after his arrest, though prosecutors had failed to introduce that confession during the first trial. The Mississippi Supreme Court again overturned the decision and returned the case to the lower court because African Americans had been excluded from the jury pool.
During a third trial in 1948, lawyers affiliated with the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a legal defense organization with ties to the Communist Party, put McGee on the witness stand, where he testified that he had been tortured into confessing. Feeling threatened by the increasingly restless mobs that milled about the courthouse during the trial, the CRC attorneys fled Mississippi without offering a closing argument, and the jury again found McGee guilty. The state Supreme Court upheld this decision, and the US Supreme Court rejected several appeals over the next three years.
Following the third trial, the CRC increased its efforts to build an international defense campaign on McGee’s behalf. The organization argued against the racist application of the rape law, under which no Mississippi white man had been executed, and alleged that Hawkins and McGee had been involved in a romantic relationship until McGee’s threats to end the affair drove Hawkins to charge rape. The CRC also arranged for delegations of supporters to travel to Mississippi to lobby the governor and flooded the offices of other state officials with petitions demanding justice. A CRC-sponsored rally at the State Capitol ended in the arrests of more than forty protesters. Outside Mississippi, one thousand Chevrolet workers in Flint, Michigan, held a prayer meeting for McGee; in addition, thousands of black workers from the docks of New Orleans, the meatpacking plants of Chicago, and the clothing factories of New York organized mass protests, engaged in work stoppages, and donated money to the campaign to “Save Willie McGee.” In France, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Richard Wright organized a demonstration on McGee’s behalf, and various foreign governments sent letters of protest to Pres. Harry S. Truman. None of these efforts, including several last-minute appeals to the US Supreme Court and an ongoing vigil in front of the White House, saved Willie McGee.
While some Mississippi segregationists boosted their political careers by pandering to the fear and outrage among the state’s white voters, McGee’s highly publicized trials and execution complicated American efforts to appeal to nonaligned nations in Asia and Africa. The US Department of State closely monitored world reaction to the case, and the 1952 Republican nominee for vice president, Richard Nixon, recounted that while traveling in Switzerland his car had been pasted with bumper stickers protesting “the legalized lynching of Willie McGee.” Nixon complained that the incident provided evidence that southern racism undermined the American case for democracy.
- Charles Grutzner, New York Times (20 October 1952)
- Alex Heard, The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South (2010)
- Gerald Horne, Communist Front?: The Civil Rights Congress, 1946–1956 (1987)
- Charles H. Martin, Georgia Historical Quarterly (Spring 1987)
- Craig Zaim, Journal of Mississippi History (Fall 2003)