The Eyes of Willie McGee - Alex Heard

Book: The Eyes of Willie McGee
Author: Alex Heard
Publisher: Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
404 pages
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Earlier this year, my interest in American history was piqued when I was watching a History Channel show on the United States. I realized how complex our history is and how the history we are taught in school is just really not sufficient enough to understand the true American experience. It is because of this that I signed up for The Eyes of Willie McGee book tour on Crazy Book Tours. When I saw the book it immediately piqued my interest because while I have read a few novels about the African American experience in the U.S., I had never read any non-fiction about 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 executed in 1951 in Mississippi's travelling electric chair.

While reading this book, both Willie McGee's and Willette Hawkins' stories fascinated me because they were in similar situations in society. At the time it was almost unthinkable for an African American to get a fair trial in the South, and I was surprised to read at how low women were viewed according to the law as well. The evidence presented against McGee at trial would not have been enough for him to be convicted in a court of law in the United States today, and I definitely felt a sense of injustice while reading McGee's struggle to avoid execution for the crime he was accused and convicted of. However, I was surprised to find myself equally appalled for Willette Hawkins who was treated quite unfair by today's standards as well--one of the requirements for rape at the time was that a woman had to fight back as hard as she possibly could--and her testimony was called into question as to whether or not she was actually raped based on this. To me, they were both victims of a society that viewed them as inferior and therefore didn't deserve justice.

What I found very interesting in the book is how the Communists in the U.S. were so involved in civil rights. I had heard some about it while in school, but I didn't realize to what extent they were involved. They were such a polarizing figure at the time (remember McCarthyism was just around the corner) that even the NAACP wanted to avoid being associated with the Communist funded Civil Rights Congress. After reading this book, I applaud the CRC's efforts to save Mr. McGee (even though I felt uncertain about his innocence or guilt even after finishing the book). He and so many others like him deserved to be treated as full citizens without discrimination and receive fair trials when accused of a crime. I am so glad that people were willing to stand up and fight for those that were not allowed to fight for themselves. I believe that the stories of these African Americans' suffering was not in vain because through their suffering and the work of those who sought to bring real justice to the American system, our society has changed for the better. It is so unfortunate that all these terrible things had to happen for people to realize that skin color is not a factor in being a human being and all should be treated with dignity.

Alex Heard does a fine job of explaining the racial climate during the 1940s and the extent to which the CRC and Communists were involved in fighting for civil rights. Toward the end of the book, Heard writes about a demonstration in Washington D.C. in which a young soldier asked, "...why all this fuss over one life," to which another visitor answered, "Sometimes, one life becomes a symbol of a million lives." (p.316) Reading Willie McGee's personal story gave me a greater understanding of the African American struggle to gain equal rights in America.

I recommend this book to people who are both wanting a to read a detailed account of one man's struggle and understand the greater influence of the Communist involvement in the Civil Rights Movement (which I found fascinating).

Related Websites
Harper Collins' The Eyes of Willie McGee page (includes a video about the book--also contains stock footage of the case)
The Eyes of Willie McGee webpage

This book was received for review through:
Crazy Book Tours


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting book, Carin! But it also sounds like a book where you can never relax while reading it because you just can't believe how people are treated and get angry and sad at times.

Obviously not one for the beach! :-)

Carin B. said...

No, definitely not a beach read, but I found it to be a really eye-opening book. The book was quite focused on both McGee and the CRC so it talked a lot about the Communists which I didn't know much about. It was very frustrating and very sad to read, but very worthwhile.

Also, part of my husband's family is from Mississippi so it was really eerie reading about some of the places because I have been there once. I did like that Heard seemed very fair to both McGee and Hawkins and tried to approach the case in an unbiased way. I am still not convinced as to what really happened the night of the alleged rape.

Sarah (My World of Books) said...

Wow, this book sounds great. The sad thing is that the law is not perfect. I was reading/watching a story how a man was sent to prison for over 20 years, but he was innocent of the crime. The evidence was circumstantial and he persisted he was innocent.

And with rape, woman are still not treated with respect. Lawyers bring up womans past in the court room. I read in Moral Compass of an American lawyer. They would say she was sexual promiscuous before and that she was lying about being raped. Horrible

I don't know how I feel about law, but I know it is not perfect.

Carin B. said...

@Sarah - It was a really interesting book especially because I thought it was going to prove his innocence (I knew nothing about the story before I read it--it's apparently a fairly well known story that was part of what started the Civil Rights Movement) but in the end, there was not enough evidence to say whether he did or did not commit the rape. I highly recommend the book just because in addition to that mystery, it shows how our legal system worked at the time, and how the CRC organized themselves to not only promote civil rights but also communism which was something we aren't really taught much about in school. I feel like I learned a lot and the book made a very good case as to why all people accused of a crime deserve a fair trial.

ABookGeek said...

This sounds like something I will have to read. I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird and this looks like a good follow up. Thank you for such a thoughtful review.

Carin B. said...

@ABookGeek - I learned so much reading the book and thought it was well done because I was conflicted while reading it. When you read it, let me know what you think of it!

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