Getting Ready for The Eyes of Willie McGee
For the past few years, my Outside colleague Alex Heard--whose office is right next door to mine--has been working nights and weekends on a nonfiction book called The Eyes of Willie McGee, which is about a courtroom drama in Mississippi that took place between 1945 and 1951, a case whose real-life details share obvious parallels with the rape trial depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The book comes out next month from HarperCollins, and Heard has just launched a companion Web site, www.eyesofwilliemcgee.com, where he describes the book, writes original posts inspired by his reporting experiences, and serves up everything from archival photos to a rare news-radio broadcast that happened when the story came to its grim conclusion in 1951.
At the center of everything is a dramatic crime and, as Heard explained it to me, a nagging mystery about who was telling the truth during a saga that involved many accusations and counter-accusations. A white woman in the small city of Laurel, Mississippi, claimed she was raped by a black man named Willie McGee. McGee narrowly escaped getting lynched, and his first trial was a kangaroo-court affair that resulted in a guilty verdict and death sentence after only two minutes of jury deliberation. Behind the scenes, a Communist-affiliated civil rights group based in New York took over the case, hiring a young lawyer named Bella Abzug to help save McGee's life. During the next few years, the whole thing mushroomed from an obscure example of rough southern justice into a national and international cause that captivated hundreds of thousands of people. McGee eventually claimed that the real story involved a love affair, not rape, claiming that the woman had seduced him. Among those who believed him--and who spoke out on his behalf--were Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, and Frida Kahlo.
Having worked next door to Heard all this time, I can't wait to see the result of his efforts. He never missed a step during his day job, but when I would see him after hours, you could tell that the book was a bigger challenge than he'd bargained for. Usually, his floor was covered with papers--trial transcripts, old newspaper stories, letters, huge stacks of information he'd pried loose using Freedom of Information Act requests--and it's fair to say he didn't get outside much. (Or any.) Now that it's all over, his friends here are gently suggesting that he go take a hike. If that doesn't work, I'll just steal his keyboard.