Sunday, May 16, 2010

New in civil rights history: The Eyes of Willie McGee

"When Willie McGee was executed in 1951, the civil-rights movement was just starting to stir," writes Bruce Watson in a Los Angeles Times review of The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South by Alex Heard. "Yet as Heard reveals in 'The Eyes of Willie McGee,' something made this case different. Indeed, the forgotten story, while it mirrors 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' has all the complexity of Faulkner."

Willie McGee is not forgotten to civil rights historians, of course. He was executed in 1951 for the alleged rape of a white woman, with little evidence presented at his trial. But this "painstakingly investigated" history will shed welcome light on this important story. While McGee's case made its way to the Supreme Court, the case
sparked FBI investigations, worldwide headlines and protests in major American cities.

Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Congress took up McGee's cause. The organization's communist ties scared off the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and convinced Mississippi that McGee's defense was another "Red plot." By 1950, when publicity had aroused broader support, Albert Einstein, William Faulkner and Norman Mailer demanded clemency or a new trial. Mississippi's governor received 15,000 letters pleading for mercy. And future Congresswoman Bella Abzug was in Mississippi defending McGee.
Continue reading here.

In other book news, 'The Promise:President Obama, Year One,' by Jonathan Alter is taken up today in the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.