Bridgette McGee-Robinson holds a photo of her grandfather Willie McGee.
Bridgette McGee-Robinson holds a photo of her grandfather Willie McGee. Teri Havens
When Bridgette McGee-Robinson was growing up, she didn't know anything about her grandfather — who he was, where he was from, why no one ever talked about him.
But, as a child, while helping her mother clean the house, she came across a packet of old articles and photographs hidden under a mattress. She asked her mother who the man in the old photographs was, but her mother snatched the papers away and told McGee-Robinson that she was too young to understand them.
Four decades later, McGee-Robinson went to Mississippi to find out everything she could about her grandfather's life and death. She went to find people who could tell her what Willie McGee was like, who he was and what happened to him.
The Case Of Willie McGee
In the fall of 1945, in the small town of Laurel, Miss., McGee, a young black man, was arrested on charges of raping a white housewife. The charges inflamed the town — the rumor got out that people were going to break him out of the Laurel jail and lynch him. When McGee was taken to the courthouse to be tried, he was transported in a National Guard truck and dressed in fatigues to disguise his identity and protect him.
Courtesy New York Public Library
This picture of Willie McGee in jail — date unknown — was the one Bridgette McGee-Robinson found under her mother's mattress and spurred her quest to find the truth.
This picture of Willie McGee in jail — date unknown — was the one Bridgette McGee-Robinson found under her mother's mattress and spurred her quest to find the truth. Courtesy New York Public Library
The alleged victim testified that a black man had broken into her house, told her he had a knife, and raped her while her baby slept next to her. Prosecutors linked McGee to the crime. McGee's own lawyers put up a half-hearted defense. They encouraged McGee to plead insanity and failed to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses.
McGee's first trial lasted only half an afternoon; the jury deliberated only two-and-a-half minutes before sentencing McGee to death. No white man in Mississippi had ever received a death sentence for rape.
But McGee-Robinson spoke with some people in Laurel who said McGee's true defense couldn't be brought up at trial because it was too inflammatory. There were people in the black community who believed that McGee had been having an illicit affair with the woman who accused him of rape.
McGee-Robinson's aunt Della McGee Johnson told her that the family had always believed that McGee was involved with the white woman — and that he was charged with rape when they were caught. Most white people that McGee-Robinson spoke to, however, believed that a consensual relationship between a black man and a white woman would have been impossible, given the societal norms of the time.
A Rally And Execution
In 1946, McGee's case was taken over by the Civil Rights Congress, a newly formed, Communist-affiliated civil rights group. The Congress hired future U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug to represent Willie McGee, and launched both a legal defense and a public relations campaign. The Congress sponsored "Save Willie McGee" rallies and petition drives across America; activists rallied in Paris, Moscow and China. William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and Albert Einstein came out in support of McGee.
Two local Mississippi radio stations — WFOR and WAML — delivered a joint broadcast of Willie McGee's execution live from the scene in front of the courthouse. They captured the sound of the estimated thousand people who came to witness the execution, and the roar of the generator that powered the state's traveling electric chair.
In a lucky twist, that recording has been preserved and can be heard today. Although there are many recordings from World War II and from the civil rights movement, preserved recordings from the years in between — the late 1940s and early 1950s — are rare.
The fact that this particular recording was preserved is a fluke. A young reporter, Jim Leeson, recorded the broadcast for his personal use, and held onto it for the next five decades. Several years ago, he donated the recording to the University of Southern Mississippi's oral history department, which allowed Radio Diaries and NPR to use it. While the entire broadcast is about 30 minutes long, these 2 minutes capture its essence.
McGee's case covered six years before his appeals were exhausted. On the night of May 7, 1951, McGee was executed in Mississippi's portable electric chair. The traveling chair was moved from county to county, set up in local courthouses, and connected to generators that supplied the power that drove the chair. After an execution, the chair would be dismantled and brought back to the state capital. The chair is now housed at the Mississippi Law Enforcement Training Academy, where McGee-Robinson found it gathering dust in a corner, surrounded by softball trophies.
On that night in May 1951, the chair was set up before the judges' stand in the same courtroom where McGee had first been convicted. The courtroom was on the second floor; long wires connected the chair to a generator below in an alley. Close to a thousand people gathered on the lawn of the courthouse to witness the execution.
The execution was broadcast live by a local radio station, which went to the scene with a remote transmitter and delivered a play-by-play of the scene outside. Reporters dangled their microphones over the generator to capture the sounds of the machine as it groaned under the strain of running the chair.
'We'll Never Know The Truth'
After the execution, McGee's body was taken to a local black funeral home. Harvey Warren, who grew up in Laurel, remembered being taken by his parents to view the body. He said there was a message they wanted him to get: "Don't mess with white girls. You see what happened to Willie McGee."
Others in the town say that after the execution, people didn't want to talk about the case anymore. It was uncomfortable to discuss, and people wanted to put the subject to rest.
The Robert Waller Photographs Digital Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi
McGee was dressed in a National Guard uniform to disguise his identity and prevent him from being lynched on the drive to the courthouse.
McGee was dressed in a National Guard uniform to disguise his identity and prevent him from being lynched on the drive to the courthouse. The Robert Waller Photographs Digital Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi
But McGee-Robinson had one more person she wanted to talk to. She went to the home of Jon Swartzfager, who was the son of Paul Swartzfager, the district attorney who had prosecuted McGee in his last trial — the man who had essentially sent McGee-Robinson's grandfather to the electric chair.
Swartzfager welcomed McGee-Robinson into his home, and they sat and talked about the case. Swartzfager told her that on the night of the execution, his father smuggled a bottle of whiskey into the jail where McGee was being kept. He asked to speak to McGee alone, and the two men sat and shared the whiskey.
Paul Swartzfager asked McGee, "Did you do it?" McGee answered, "Yes, but she wanted it just as much as I did."
Those words are ambiguous, and can be interpreted in different ways. Robinson says, "Things are never as clear-cut as we want them to be. How do I feel about those words? I don't know. I think we'll never know the truth, truth, truth. But I know what I believe. And that's my truth. So when my kids and grandkids ask me, 'Who was my great-grandfather?' I'll be able to tell them, 'This is the story of Willie McGee.' "
Narrated by Bridgette McGee-Robinson. Produced for All Things Considered by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries, with help from Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.