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The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South

3.68  ·  Rating Details ·  154 Ratings  ·  34 Reviews
A gripping saga of race and retribution in the Deep South and a story whose haunting details echo the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird

In 1945, Willie McGee, a young African-American man from Laurel, Mississippi, was sentenced to death for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. At first, McGee's case was barely noticed, covered only in hostile Mississippi new
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published May 11th 2010 by Harper (first published 2010)
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Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it liked it
Shelves: true-crime, legal
In general, I think, Americans are pretty pumped about being Americans. We’re proud, and rightfully so, of many of our national accomplishments.

[Cue Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA]

Our Revolution was extraordinary (especially when compared to the French, who screw everything up yet manage to remain condescending). Our mid-20th century foreign interventions, both forced (World War II) and voluntary (Korea) undoubtedly helped save many innocent lives. And we went to the freaking moon! Three che
Apr 20, 2015 Irene rated it it was amazing
Shelves: arc, gave-away
Title: "The Eyes of Willie McGee"
Author: Alex Heard
Publisher: Harper
ISBN, PUB Date: 978-0-06-128415-1, May 2010

Reviewed By: Irene Yeates for Author Exposure (07/10)

THE EYES OF WILLIE McGEE: A TRAGEDY OF RACE, SEX, AND SECRETS IN THE JIM CROW SOUTH by Alex Heard presents more questions than answers. Yet, in so doing, it is an outrageously honest and well-documented vehicle to enlighten those unaware of how one extraordinary judicial argument unknowingly provided the ballast for the Civil Rights m
Bob Schmitz
Willie McGee was a black man in Laurel, MS accused and eventually electrocuted for raping a white woman. At the time (late 1940's to early 50's) the case garnered national and international attention. McGee was found guilty in two-and-a-half minutes by an all white jury. There were numerous appeals and retrials and stays and motions before the Supreme Court. In 1946 the Civil Rights Congress, an off-shoot of the Communist Party, hired Bella Abzug to handle the appeal of the case. Interestingly t ...more
Jul 21, 2010 Mykl rated it really liked it
First of all it is clear the author put in a significant amount of time doing research with primary and secondary sources. An annoyance is an overabundance of information that is not relevant. Such as one person he contacts who never does research he asks for but the author details the medical procedure that she went under. Also his analysis of the dynamics of current family members from both sides is not as strong as the historical analysis.

Very good job detailing how McGee receiving assistanc
Laura Higgins
Didn't read it cover to cover, but after the first 200 pages, you get the point. Overall interesting topic, though I wish Heard's approach had been less about telling his own story of his research and more just relating his discoveries. I guess since so much of his information is based on interviews, those experiences with "witnesses" telling their stories.
Jul 21, 2010 Carin rated it really liked it
Willie McGee was a young African American man who was accused of raping a White woman named Willette Hawkins in 1945. He was quickly tried and convicted for the crime despite the evidence being largely circumstantial. The Civil Rights Congress got wind of his conviction and the circumstances surrounding it and decided to take action. A group of attorneys funded through the CRC appealed McGee's conviction not once, but twice in an attempt to free him. Their appeals ultimately failed and McGee was ...more
E. Wood
Jun 22, 2014 E. Wood rated it it was amazing
Journalist Alex Heard spent decades contemplating and years researching the baleful but gripping story of Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1940s Mississippi and sentenced to death. The book presents a full panoply of evidence about McGee's possible guilt or innocence, but it is most fascinating to me as a case study in political justice.

The white local establishment that rejects McGee's (credible) claim that he was in a consensual relationship with the alleged victim,
Apr 23, 2010 Aarti rated it it was amazing
Here's a real-life version of the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, though it's far murkier and complicated. Willie McGee was an African-American man who, in 1945, was sentenced to death for raping a white housewife, Willette Hawkins. His trial was unfair- he was tried by an all-white jury who debated for only about two minutes before convicting him in a hostile courthouse where he couldn't even put together two words coherently, he was so terrified of being lynched by the mob outside.

Willie McGee
Tempest Devyne
Jan 05, 2015 Tempest Devyne rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
An absolutely diverting-read and very worthwhile for anyone wanting to know about a period of history definitely not broadcast outside of the USA. As a Brit my knowledge of American history is more names and dates than how life was day-to-day for ordinary people. Other than having heard of the KKK and that there were lynchings (though I honestly only thought that meant people being hung.....I had NO IDEA the huge range of brutal forms and tortures inflicted, or that there were 'legal' lynchings ...more
Feb 03, 2016 Caroline rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
In 1945 an African-American labourer named Willie McGee was arrested for the rape of a white housewife in Laurel, Mississippi. Despite the purely circumstantial evidence against him, he was sentenced to death after an all-white jury deliberated for just three minutes. In the courtroom McGee was so terrified by the mob baying for his blood outside and the brutal treatment he had received in jail that he could not utter a single word in his own defence or even communicate with his own lawyers. The ...more
Julie Smith (Knitting and Sundries)
This review first appeared on my blog:

I am always interested in reading about events that really happened, especially if they have historical significance.

This book centers around Willie McGee, a young black man accused in the 1940's South, of raping a white woman named Willette Hawkins. The evidence was circumstantial; the trials were rushed, and the outcome was inevitable, based on the time period.

Willie McGee became somewhat of a "cause celebre", with
Apr 05, 2012 Julie rated it really liked it
Willie McGee was an African-American man, who was accused of raping a white woman in 1945, in the state of Mississippi. There was no concrete evidence against him and no witnesses yet he was tried and found guilty in record time and sentenced to death. This was the era of lynchings and kangaroo courts and many black prisoners had been dragged out of the prison and lynched and no one ever brought to justice. This was at the beginning of the Civil rights movement and many groups got involved tryin ...more
Paul Pessolano
Feb 19, 2011 Paul Pessolano rated it liked it
Although this book revolves around the tragedy of Willie McGee, the book is an overview of the plight of the African-American in the South in the 1940's and 1950's.

Willie McGee was arrested and accused of raping a white woman. The incident took place in 1945 and culminated with his electrocution in 1951.

The case againist Willie was circumspect at best. During the trials it was brought out that the sex may have been consensual. There was the fact no African-American was ever called to jury duty i
Convicted of the rape of a white woman in Mississippi, Willie McGee was executed in 1951, and the mysteries surrounding his case live on in this provocative tale about justice in the deep South.

The first time I heard the name Willie McGee was in a song by the Flobots about Anne Braden. Anne Braden is mentioned twice in this book, but the book is mainly about Willie McGee and then next Willette Hawkins, the woman he is accused of raping and then the politics of the day, in Mississippi in the late
Cheryl Anne
Aug 08, 2013 Cheryl Anne rated it liked it
According to Wikipedia, Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine--the same magazine that launched Jon Krakauer's career. Unfortunately, Heard lacks that mysterious something that makes a good writer great. He does a decent job of reporting the facts as he sees them, he just doesn't do it like Krakauer. I had a personal reason for sticking with this book: John Poole, the one-legged, whiskey-loving lawyer who, along with fellow attorney Al London, risked life and his remaining lowe ...more
Jul 18, 2011 Patricia rated it liked it
I expected to love this book, as the civil rights era is one that has fascinated me lately, but I didn't. The first part, which dealt with his arrest and trial, was good and held my attention. The appeals process was hard to read, perhaps mostly because you knew that they wouldn't be successful. I think, though, of how hard it must have been for the lawyers to keep it up, to say nothing of what it must have done to McGee and his family. It was also disheartening to read about the rift between th ...more
Chicken Little
Aug 26, 2010 Chicken Little rated it it was ok
Alex Heard has done a terrific job writing this book. His voice reconstructs the facts impartially; never, not even once, readers have the idea that he is taking sides, and that, per se, is remarkable.

But unfortunately that's all Heard does: he describes the terrible events that lead to McGee's death by electrocution; he puts such events in the correct order, the alleged attack on Hawkins, the imprisonment, the three trials and so on.. However, I was left mistified because Heard failed to shed
Jul 22, 2010 Kara rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-american

This is an extremely powerful read. The parts of the book that focus on Willie McGee are riveting as Alex Heard dives into the history of a trail that once captivated the entire world – and now has been almost entirely forgotten.

However, there are large sections where the author gets into a more general history of mid-twentieth century America, droning on for pages about different political parties, legislation, and statistics, and really kind of lost me.

Overall, a fascinating look into the lif
Oct 30, 2012 Mac rated it really liked it
A very well researched and documented book that recounts one of the most notorious (but not all that uncommon) cases of racial injustice during the Jim Crow era in the deep South. Anyone who doesn't know much about the recent history of race relations in this country, about the civil rights movement that grew out of that history or about some of the lasting effects of that history that still permeate our culture today, should read this book.
This book covered much more than the Willie McGee case, and while some of the additions related to the case (similar issues or examples of the racial environment at the time) and helped provide a picture of how things were at the time the alleged crime occurred, some of the other details seemed extraneous and not linked in a meaningful way to advance the story. Another run-through by an editor could have made this story much more powerful.
Lisa Ard
Oct 01, 2010 Lisa Ard rated it it was ok
The set up is strong and the ending is inconclusive and therefore very disappointing. The author meanders through the rise of the communist party in mid 20th-century America and mires down in the details of people, places and insignificant events. Throughout the book the author goes off on tangents of other racial atrocities too many times. This book follows the search for answers, but in the end, gives none.
Jemera Rone
Sep 11, 2012 Jemera Rone rated it it was amazing
Quite interesting modern investigation into a cause celeb case of the late 1940s in which race, sex, and Community Party publicity played a part. Recreates the atmosphere of those times well, with a starring role by Bella Abzug, then a young volunteer lawyer from NYC trying--unsuccessfully, as it turns out-- to keep a black man from the electric chair.
Jul 12, 2015 Tom rated it really liked it
This is a fine book, and contains two stories: first there is the story of the actual crime and Mr McGee's three trials; then there is the story of how the author did all of his research for the book. The latter involved tracking down the relatives of the main participants in this case, including both McGee and the alleged rape victim. Both stories are well-told and very interesting.
David Szatkowski
Jan 23, 2016 David Szatkowski rated it really liked it
This is an excellent book that forces the reader to confront the social mores, attitudes, and prejudices of the Jim Crow era in Mississippi. However, at the same time, the reader is forced to consider their own attitudes and beliefs about racism today. How we respond to our own current social issues can be challenged by this book.
Sep 22, 2012 Sarah rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned

It was an interesting story but there were so many side stories it cluttered the original premise. The author seemed to be trying to capture the entire history of the events leading up to the Civil Rights Movement tacked on to the story of one, wrongly-accused man. After reading fairly regularly for almost a month and only reaching about 31% completion, I just had to stop.
May 21, 2010 W. rated it it was amazing
An amazing piece of reporting and historical scholarship. Before reading this book, I only knew the story of Willie McGee vaguely, since it was whispered about rather than discussed openly. While much will never be known about Willie McGee's guilt or innocence, I think this book provides much for the reader to decide on their own.
Heidi Vargas
Jun 02, 2010 Heidi Vargas rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting novel one that I won't soon forget! Rarely has a book ever grabbed my attention as this book did I have read some of the chapters more then once just to make sure I got every detail out of it. Alex Heard deserves much praise for the in-depth research into this fascinating case.
Sep 06, 2015 Sharon rated it it was amazing
It's always difficult to read about events in history such as this, but it was worth the read. There's so much information that the story can become overwhelming at times, but it is definitely worth the read.
May 24, 2016 Andi rated it did not like it
This book could have been written with half the length- if that- had the author cut the travel logs, medical reports and other extraneous writing that wastes the reader's time and adds nothing to the story- indeed it ruins the reader's interest. Save your time.
Sharon G
Feb 16, 2015 Sharon G rated it really liked it
A little rambling in places, but fresh insights for me about the Great Migration and modern attitudes toward the justice system. Thank God, we have come a long way, but still a long way to travel.
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