Willie McGee (convict)

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Willie McGee (died May 8, 1951) was a married African American man from Laurel, Mississippi, who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins,[1] a white housewife in town.[2] McGee's legal case became a cause célèbre.[3] The Civil Rights Congress handled McGee's defense and appeals; he had two new trials and stays of execution.

Early life[edit]

Willie McGee was born in Laurel, Mississippi, and attended local, segregated schools for a short time before starting to work as a youth. He married Eliza Jane Patton, April 15, 1935. McGee had four children with Patton: Willie Earl, Della, Gracie Lee and Mary. During the trial a woman named Rosalee McGee claimed she was the mother of the children and McGee's wife. She only appeared after the charges were filed and the date of the alleged marriage would have occurred while McGee and Patton were still married.[4]

One writer, author Alexander S. Heard, believes he solved the mystery of Rosalee while researching the book The Eyes of Willie McGee. Heard states: "So who was Rosalee? I was able to figure out what her real name was (Rosetta Saffold), where she came from (the area around Lexington, Miss., which is far from Laurel, where Willie McGee lived), and that she moved to New York after the case ended and kept an affiliation with the Civil Rights Congress, the Communist-backed group that paid for McGee’s defense. I think she met him in the late 1940s, through the bars of his jail cell in Jackson, Miss.—while visiting a cousin of hers who was on death row in the same jail. I also think she legitimately cared about him, and grew to care about the civil-rights and civil-liberties causes pushed by the CRC".[5]

Alleged rape[edit]

In 1945 McGee was arrested for the alleged rape of Willette Hawkins, a 32-year-old white housewife in town.[1][6][3]

As was typically the case, he was quickly tried, within a month. He was convicted by an all-white jury after less than three minutes of deliberation,[6] and sentenced to death for the rape. A disproportionate number of black men were executed in the state for rape; no white men had been executed for raping black women.[6] McGee contended that he was innocent, and that he had been beaten during questioning by police.[6]

After his conviction, McGee was defended by the Civil Rights Congress, which mounted a public campaign as well as filing legal appeals of his case. Bella Abzug, then a young attorney, represented his appeals in Mississippi and the Supreme Court in one of the first civil rights cases of her legal career.[7] The CRC won two new trials and numerous stays of execution. McGee was convicted again each time and sentenced to death. At the third trial, he said that he and Hawkins had been having an affair and that the sex was consensual. This made no difference to the outcome.

Public figures in support[edit]

Author William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven.[8] Other notable public figures spoke out: Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker.[3][9] U.S. President Harry S. Truman came under international pressure[why?] to grant McGee a pardon[how?] or at least commute his sentence; he did neither.[3]

McGee spent eight years in Mississippi jails prior to his execution, during which time the assistance of the Civil Rights Congress gained him two new trials and several stays of execution.[10] Supreme Court Justice Harold Burton ordered a stay in July 1950; however the full U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear McGee's final appeal.[10]

The night before McGee was electrocuted in 1951 by the state of Mississippi, he wrote a farewell letter to his wife Rosalie:

Tell the people the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro down.... They can't do this if you and the children keep on fighting. Never forget to tell them why they killed their daddy. I know you won't fail me. Tell the people to keep on fighting.

Your truly husband, Will McGee.[10]

An NPR 2010 documentary reported that the son of McGee's original prosecutor had claimed that his father and Willie McGee shared a bottle of whiskey the night before his execution. During that conversation, McGee had supposedly admitted he had had sexual intercourse with Hawkins, but she had wanted it as much as he.[1] The report noted allegations at the time that McGee and his alleged victim were lovers, and that she claimed to have been raped in fear that the affair would be exposed. McGee did not use this defense in court. His supporters claim it would only have harmed his position, because of the inflammatory effect it could have had on the all-white jury. Southerners generally denied that white women would choose to have consensual sex with black men.[11]

Author Alex Heard published his book on the case, The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South (2010).[12] He had become interested in the period of the 1940s through the 1950s, when veterans pressed for expanded civil rights after World War II.


  1. ^ a b c "Willie McGee and the Travelling Electric Chair Radio", Radio Diaries, NPR, Retrieved 5 June 2010
  2. ^ "How an obscure FBI rule is ensuring the destruction of irreplaceable historical records", Slate,, Retrieved 24 December 2015
  3. ^ a b c d Alex Heard, "The Department of Forgetting: How an obscure FBI rule is ensuring the destruction of irreplaceable historical records", Slate
  4. ^ http://www.amazon.com/The-Eyes-Willie-McGee-Tragedy/dp/0061284165
  5. ^ https://mcgeebook.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/rosalee-news/
  6. ^ a b c d Steve Fiffer, "Review: 'The Eyes of Willie McGee : A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South' by Alex Heard", Chicago Tribune, 2010
  7. ^ Braun Levine, Suzanne; Thom, Mary (2007). Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 49–56. ISBN 0-374-29952-8. 
  8. ^ Joseph Leo Blotner (2005). Faulkner: A Biography. University Press of Mississippi. p. 539. ISBN 1-57806-732-4. 
  9. ^ Mitford, Jessica A Fine Old Conflict
  10. ^ a b c Jerome, Fred (2003). The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist. Macmillan. p. 129. ISBN 0-312-31609-7. 
  11. ^ NPR, "My Grandfather's Execution", NPR
  12. ^ Heard, Alex (2010-05-11). "The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South". Harper. 

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