Friday, May 7, 2010

Us and Willie McGee

Before we are anything else, the WMRA community is a community of listeners. This is why I want to be sure you knew of a rare listening experience to be had today on All Things Considered -- Radio Diaries' exploration of the case of Willie McGee, a black man who may or may not have been guilty of raping a white woman, who was put to death in Mississippi's traveling electric chair on May 8, 1951.

His trial and execution are generally considered to be a representation of Jim Crow's rough and racist justice on parade.
I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the fifth grade, my class went on a field trip to Raleigh. All I remember touring is the capitol and the penitentiary, where we were shown the electric chair. I can't remember what I felt at the time, but I can still picture that chair.

Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Onlookers in Jackson, Miss., gather around the executioner Jimmy Thompson, left, and the portable electric chair, which was mounted at the back of a truck.

The experience came back to me when I read Larry Rohter's fine piece in the New York Times about the execution of Willie McGee, and studied the children in this photograph. Don't you think they'd have much the same expressions if they were being photographed with Joltin' Joe DiMaggio? This electric chair, this executioner! Man, they're really something!

Was that me as a fifth grader? Surely not, but then children take their cues from adults, and evidently adults in the 1950's thought laying eyes on an electric chair was a real treat.

These days, no matter what our politics, no matter what we think about capital punishment, we do at least recognize now that it isn't "something!"  And there's probably no better context for considering the societal implications of the death penalty than the arrest, trial and execution of Willie McGee.

Here's Wikipedia's entry on it . . .
Willie McGee (died May 8, 1951) was an African-American from Laurel, Mississippi, who was sentenced to death in 1945 for raping a white housewife.[1] In a time of intense racism in the United States, especially in The South, the outcome of McGee's first trial in December 1945 was effectively pre-ordained.[1] With two confessions and overwhelming evidence against him he was convicted by three courts. The first trial lasted one day, and an all-white jury found him guilty after 2½ minutes of deliberations.[1]
McGee's legal case became a cause célèbre.[1] William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven.[2] Bella Abzug brought his appeals in Mississippi and the Supreme Court in one of the first civil rights cases of her legal career.[3] Other notable people spoke out: Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker.[1] U.S. President Harry Truman came under international pressure to grant McGee a pardon.[1]
McGee spent eight years in Mississippi jails prior to his execution, during which time the Communist Party Civil Rights Council gained him two new trials and several stays of execution.[4] Supreme Court Justice Harold Burton ordered a stay in July 1950; however the full Supreme Court refused to hear McGee's final appeal.[4]
The night before he was electrocuted by the state of Mississippi, he wrote a farewell letter to his common law wife, Rosalie:
Tell the people the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro down.... They can't do this if you and the children keep on fighting. Never forget to tell them why they killed their daddy. I know you won't fail me. Tell the people to keep on fighting. Your truly husband, Will McGee.[4]
Radio Diaries is the public radio production house that has already brought us such series as Prison Diaries and New York Works. In public radio lingo, their Willie McGee piece is a "format breaker," meaning it's luxuriously long, rich story-telling - much longer than the typical long ATC story. It is narrated by McGee's granddaughter, Bridgette Robinson, and includes a newly discovered recording of a local radio station's play-by-play account of McGee's execution.

It will air (provided ATC's schedule doesn't change)  from 4:35:30 -4:58:18 PM EST today


  1. Thanks for all the posting on my Grandfather Willie McGee, thank you for allowing me to tell my story.

    Bridgett McGee-Robinson

  2. The first time I probably thought about capital punishment was in 10th grade (about 1960), when a history teacher told us Virginia had just executed a boy our age. Fifteen, or maybe 16. I don't know what he had been accused of. I think I recall he was African American. --C.E.

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