The Eyes of Willie McGee - BOOK REVIEW

10/27/2010 07:21:00 PM

Title:  The Eyes of Willie McGee
Author:  Alex Heard
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Hardcover, 416 pages
ISBN 10: 0061284157
ISBN 13:  9780061284151


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 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 civil rights organization with ties to the Communist Party of the United States—to oversee McGee's defense. Together with William Patterson, the son of a slave and a devout believer in the need for revolutionary change, Abzug and a group of white Mississippi lawyers risked their lives to plead McGee's case. After years of court battles, McGee's supporters flooded President Harry S. Truman and the U.S. Supreme Court with clemency pleas, and famous Americans—including William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Norman Mailer, and Josephine Baker—spoke out on McGee's behalf. 

By the time the case ended in 1951 with McGee's public execution in Mississippi's infamous traveling electric chair, "Free Willie McGee" had become a rallying cry among civil rights activists, progressives, leftists, and Communist Party members. Their movement had succeeded in convincing millions of people worldwide that McGee had been framed and that the real story involved a consensual love affair between him and Mrs. Hawkins—one that she had instigated and controlled. As Heard discovered, this controversial theory is a doorway to a tangle of secrets that spawned a legacy of confusion, misinformation, and pain that still resonates today. The mysteries surrounding McGee's case live on in this provocative tale of justice in the Deep South. 

Based on exhaustive documentary research—court transcripts, newspaper reports, archived papers, letters, FBI documents, and the recollections of family members on both sides—Mississippi native Alex Heard tells a moving and unforgettable story that evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, North and South, in America. 

My Take:  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 various groups and prominent figures taking up the fight, first for a new trial, then another, then for his execution to be stayed, then for him to be pardoned.

It IS apparent that Mr. McGee was abused for an extended period of time to extract his initial "confession".  What's NOT apparent, however, is whether or not he was actually guilty, AND whether or not there is even a rape that occurred at all.

Much of the book, although centered around Willie McGee, focuses on the events happening outside of this particular story. 

Although it is apparent that the writer performed meticulous, laborious, research and spent quite a long time gathering the material to put this book together, including getting together with the surviving family members of both families, this book did not grab me. I wanted to be interested in it, but just could not summon up the interest to read more than a chapter or two at a time, which is a shame, because someone actually lost their life over this story.

The writer did not pick sides, which was good .. but ... well, it amounted to what to me came down to a bare recital of the facts and the times, and it just didn't pull me in.  I DID, however, learn some facts about the times and people that I did not know prior to reading this book, and learning something new, even if it's only something that could be used as an answer on the Jeopardy category "1940's America" .. that's worth the read.


The day after his electrocution, the French paper Combat spoke for many when it declared that "the Mississippi executioner has won out over the world conscience . . . Yesterday morning a little of the liberty of all men a a little of the solidarity between the peoples died with Willie McGee."

Over the years, Pyles sat for several interviews in which he talked about what it was like to defend McGee.  Describing packed courtrooms and a "wrought up" public mood, he said he had no doubt that he and Breland could have gotten McGee or themselves killed if they'd said or done the wrong thing in court.

"The lynchers went back to Greenville and drank coffee."
BOOK RATING3 out of 5 stars

BUY IT: At Amazon and through other on and offline booksellers

Disclosure:  I received a copy of this title through Crazy Book Tours to facilitate my review.

You Might Also Like


  1. This sounds like it had a lot of potential--too bad it was a little dry! I just reread To Kill a Mockingbird, and it seems The Eyes of Willie McGee might be an interesting companion.

  2. It's hard with books about history, when the reader puts in SO much effort - they often end up being dry because there are too many details packed in! This does sound like an interesting story, and I'll have to seek it out. Thanks for the review.


Comments make me feel all squishy happy inside, so drop a line if you see or read something interesting! PLEASE don't leave links to your blog or page unless the post you're replying to specifically asks you to leave a link!
Sorry that I had to re-enable word verification, but without it, there was far too much spam coming in - the only other option would have been to require only registered (Google, OpenID, etc.) comments, which might require you, the commenter, to go through even MORE steps just to comment!

Popular Posts