Author: Alex Heard
Publisher: Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
My Rating: 4/5 stars
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).
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: