ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
In this half hour, a special report: On the night of May 7th, 1951, close to a thousand people gathered around the courthouse in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi. They came to witness the execution of Willie McGee, a young black man convicted of raping a white woman. The local radio station was there broadcasting the event live.
McGee's case had wound through three trials in six years, garnered support from William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein and others, and appeared in newspapers around the world. But after the execution, the story of Willie McGee was largely forgotten.
Some 60 years later, McGee's granddaughter, Bridgette, teamed up with Radio Diaries to search for the true story of Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Mr. JOHN DIX(ph): This is a case that has gone through six years of law courts. Certainly it's a scene that nobody likes to see - the execution of any human being - but when it becomes necessary, it must be done.
Here earlier this evening, we got a glimpse of the electric chair. Indeed, it was a frightening thing to be sure.
Ms. BRIDGETTE MCGEE-ROBINSON: Growing up, I didn't know anything about the story, nothing. It was never talked about in our house.
My name is Bridgette McGee-Robinson. I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I am the granddaughter of Willie McGee.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Mr. DIX: On the grounds of the Laurel courthouse, they wait for the news that Willie McGee has been executed for his crime.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: I remember I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was with my mom. We were cleaning out her room. She was under her mattress and there was these newspaper articles inside a plastic bag and there was a photograph. And so I said, who is this man? And she said that's your grandfather. And I asked her, well, what happened to him? But she snatched it from me and told me to put it back. She says you wouldn't understand that right now.
So I let it go for years, and basically on my mother's deathbed is when she begins to talk to me about it. And she told me to find out the truth. I told her, okay.
(Soundbite of a car driving by)
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Welcome to Mississippi. I haven't to Mississippi since I was a little girl. But here I am.
I came here to find out what happened to my grandfather. I want to know the good and I also want to know the bad. I want to hear it from the blacks. I want to hear it from the whites. I don't know where my journey will lead, but I know where it has to start.
Mr. HARVEY WARREN: We're walking up the steps of the Jones County Courthouse.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: This is the courthouse.
Mr. WARREN: Yes, in recent years...
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: I met up with a man named Harvey Warren who grew up in Laurel, Mississippi.
Mr. WARREN: This is the location where the electric chair was brought and Willie McGee was executed.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Do you know of anyone that may talk about it or...
Mr. WARREN: Even today, most people do not want to talk about it.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
Mr. WARREN: I think you'll have to put in, in your grasp of what took place, is the climate. Everything was segregated. There was our side of the tracks, which was mostly across the GM&O. And then there was the white folks' side of the tracks, which was west of the Southern Railroad. And lives were lived that way. And I knew, even as a 6-year-old, where I could go and where I could not go. And Willie McGee, obviously, we knew that he had gone on the wrong side of tracks.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Laurel Leader Call, November 5th, 1945: Willie McGee, 30-year-old Laurel Negro, was arrested in connection with the assault of a white woman, which occurred at her residence early Friday morning.
Ms. ANN SANDERS(ph) (Former Reporter, Laurel Leader Call): My name is Ann Sanders. I'm a native of Laurel, Mississippi, and I covered the first Willie McGee trial for the Laurel Leader Call newspaper. It was just unheard of, a black man raping a white woman. I mean the fact that he came into a white woman's house and raped her, it just incensed everybody. It really did.
The rumor got out that they were going to get him out of jail and were going to lynch him. So when he came for the trial, they brought him in a National Guard truck for his protection.
Mr. JON SWARTZFAGER: My name is Jon Swartzfager. My father was the district attorney and a prosecutor of Willie McGee. The truth of the matter is that Willie McGee was going to be convicted. You had 12 white males on the jury who have to make a decision: Are we going to believe the white lady or are we going to believe the black man?
Ms. SANDERS: When Mrs. Hawkins testified, she said that she had a baby about three months old, and her husband had gone up into the living room to go to sleep. And Willie McGee, he come in, got into the bed and put a knife to the baby's throat and said: If you don't, you know, agree, I will kill your baby. So she, of course, couldn't do anything else.
And Willie McGee, he did not defend himself during that whole trial. I never heard him utter a single word. Of course, he was scared to death. And I noticed his chair was wet, pants were wet and there was a puddle under the chair. He had done wet himself.
The decision was real quick. The jury stayed out only a few minutes. The judge told him: Willie McGee, you're sentence is to be electrocuted.
(Soundbite of a ringing phone)
Ms. DELLA RHEE MCGEE JOHNSON(ph): Hello.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Can you hear me, Aunt Della.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah, I can hear you.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Okay. Well, I'm calling you and I got you on the recorder because I'm taping this information. Okay, and go say you're name and who you are. Go ahead.
Ms. JOHNSON: My name is Della Rhee McGee Johnson.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: And you are?
Ms. JOHNSON: Willie McGee's oldest daughter.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: So, Aunt Della, when you first heard about what happened to Granddaddy - you, Momma, Aunt Gracie(ph), Uncle Earl(ph) -you know, when they first came to guys and say he's been arrested, do you remember that?
Ms. JOHNSON: The reason why...
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: My Aunt Della, she's the only child of Willie McGee left. And she said my momma told me the whole story of what happened with the alleged victim and my grandfather.
Ms. JOHNSON: I was told that they had been going together, and then when they finally got caught they accused him of rape.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Did they say how long they had been dating or going together?
Ms. JOHNSON: I don't know if was years or what. Back in the South, you know, black mens couldn't fool with no white women. But the white men could fool with the black women. So...
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Well, you know I'm a researching and all this information. You think I'm opening up a can of worms?
Ms. JOHNSON: Maybe.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: All right, I love you.
Ms. JOHNSON: All right. I love you, too.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: All right, bye-bye.
Mr. WARREN: There is the white view and the black view of what took place with Willie McGee. Blacks, for the most part, we understood that Willie did not rape that woman. He was in a relationship with this woman. And with Willie McGee being self-confident, you know, and good looking, pretty sure about himself - he was too bold to just - once they got a whiff of it to leave town, just run away. Go to Detroit, someplace. He was going to remain here, you know. And that was the result.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: I'm interviewing all these people and reading letters, newspaper articles, the court documents. But I'm still missing some things. I would love to speak with Wilette Hawkins, the alleged victim. But she died a long time ago and her family does not want to talk about this. They don't want to bring this up anymore.
Mr. RAYMOND HORNE (Former Reporter, Laurel Leader Call): Come in.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Okay.
Mr. HORNE: Come on in and sit down...
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: I'm here at the home of Raymond Horne who was a young reporter for the Laurel Leader Call at the time of the execution.
Mr. HORNE: I just kind of wonder, you know, after what - 60 years almost, why this is so revived.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: I'm doing it because I want some history. I'm like the family historian.
Mr. HORNE: I can be very sympathetic with you because I'm a historian of our family and I believe in that kind of business. But I've discovered, especially in family histories, that usually there are some wonderful things that you find and some very bad things that you find.
Now, one of his defenses was that it was consensual. Did you hear that?
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Right.
Mr. HORNE: That it was consensual. That is one of the craziest arguments that can be made.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: But hearing that it was consensual, it wouldn't be no different than a black woman sneaking around going with a white man. It happened all the time.
Mr. HORNE: Personally, in my lifetime, I was never aware of a white woman that had a consensual relationship with a black man. I'd never heard of it. I don't find it plausible at all. But there's no way to say this was the way it was because the parties that knew are deceased. There's no way to know, period.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Laurel Leader Call, December 27th, 1945. The case of Willie McGee, Negro, convicted of raping a white woman, will be appealed to the state supreme court. The fight to save the life of Willie McGee has been taken over by the newly formed Civil Rights Congress.
Ms. LIZ ABZUG(ph): A case like that sometimes becomes a symbol. My name is Liz Abzug. My mother was Bella Abzug, former congresswoman from New York, and she was one of the defense lawyers in the Willie McGee case.
You know, coming into a small town in rural Mississippi, you know, these communists, lefties, Northern Jews, people were kind of in disbelief. You know, it was like why is she here?
Ms. SANDERS: What's her name, Bella Abdul(ph), she come down here to make sure he had a good trial, and sometimes she was just a downright nuisance. I mean, you'd tell her something, and, well, how do you know that? Well, why do you know that? She just thought he was being railroaded, and she took it all the way to the Supreme Court to stay the execution.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: New York Times, April 1st, 1951. Several thousand demonstrators paraded in Times Square against the execution of Willie McGee. Several large groups chanted: Jim Crow must go, free Willie McGee.
Mr. HORNE: One black man and one white woman in a little old town, back then probably 20,000 people, I don't know why this one struck a fire, but it blew. His case covered five years and five months and involved three trials, six stays and three state Supreme Court refusals. That was it. That was it.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: The Mississippi Correctional Officers Academy. Hi, yes, we wanted to come in and see the traveling electric chair.
Unidentified Woman: Yes, ma'am. It's been here a long time. We've had it a long time. But it's over in that front lot.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Okay, thank you. Mississippi used to have what they called a traveling electric chair. They would take it from town to town. They would set it up in the courthouse, electrocute the person, pack it up and take it to the next spot.
And then we come around the corner, and there is this electric chair, not on display, just sitting in a corner with some baseball trophies. It was not what I expected at all.
Are we sure this is the right one?
I thought the electric chair would look like, I don't know, something made of metal with a head thing that comes off on your head or something. It's just an old wooden rocking chair is what it looks like, a chair that somebody would sit on their porch and watch the cars go by. Who in their right mind created this thing? This is just - I don't want to record anymore.
Mr. DIX I am sure that you have heard over both radio stations, WFOR and WAML, that all channels open to Willie McGee to save his life have now been exhausted, and the execution is to take place here this evening.
Mr. HORNE: I went up that night to watch the execution, and the crowd was already gathering. There was hundreds of people all over the place.
Ms. SANDERS: The weather was good. It was a nice night because it wasn't too hot, and it wasn't too Cold. People were visiting with each other and, you know, talking and passing time away.
Mr. DIX I think the majority of the crowd is now over here on this side of the courthouse, where they can see and hear the power unit for the state of Mississippi's portable electric chair.
Mr. HORNE: The execution was broadcast on the radio, and I'll never forget to this day the announcer mentioned some young boy who had climbed up a tree.
Mr. DIX We note that there is a boy over here in a tree, climbing ever higher into the branches.
Mr. HORNE: And was looking inside the window.
Mr. DIX It looks like he's going to see it. He's up there in that tree, looking in the window.
Mr. HORNE: Where Mr. McGee was going to be executed.
Mr. DIX It's now straight up 12 o'clock, and certainly, there can be no more than two minutes left to go. I think perhaps the best thing we can do is just hang this mic over and pick up the grind of that generator so that we're be sure and pick it up. Jim, if you're listening, you might jack our gain up a little bit.
(Soundbite of generator)
(Soundbite of shouting)
Mr. DIX That's it. Ladies and gentlemen, we just assume that that last surge was the final few thousands volts of electricity that meant the end of Willie McGee. Okay, Grandle(ph), thank you very much. Certainly WAML and WFOR intended no sensationalism in this. It was simply that it was that it was a news story, and we wanted to cover it as best we possibly could. So thank you all very much for listening. This is Jack Dix(ph), then returning you to your respective local studios.
Mr. WARREN: Willie McGee's body was take to Pete Christian's Funeral Home(ph), and my mother and father took me over there to see Willie, to view the body. And I knew what I was going there for, you know, and I did not close my eyes. I did not close my eyes because that was a specific message that my daddy wanted me to get, and that message was you do not get connected with white girls. You see what happened to Willie McGee. And I understood that, and, you know, my daddy let me see it long enough to get the message and then took me back home.
Mr. HORNE: After his execution, everybody pretty well washed their hands. That was the end of it. They said we've suffered, the city has suffered. We're glad it's over, let's forget it.
Ms. SANDERS: The blacks and whites didn't talk about it between them. Even today, none of the blacks I've had that helped me through the years, we never mentioned it. They believed he was innocent, and the whites believed he was guilty, simple as that. It's always going to be that way, and it was just not a good thing to argue about it.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: There is one more person I really need to speak with. I am going down to meet Jon Swartzfager. His dad prosecuted my grandfather back in 1951. He was the one who basically sent my grandfather to the electric chair.
So we came up to his house, and I was very nervous. And he opened up the door, and him and his wife, and he looked at me, and he hugged me.
Mr. SWARTZFAGER: You all just go ahead and make yourselves comfortable. Well, I remember that night of the execution very well. We were all standing in the kitchen, and my father reached up in the cabinet and got a pint of bourbon. And he took the fifth of whiskey, hid it inside his coat, and when he got to the courthouse, he told the sheriff that he wanted to see Willie McGee alone in a room just the two of them.
And they sat, and they talked while Mr. McGee drank the whiskey, and my father asked him, said: Did you or did you not rape Mrs. Hawkins? Were you guilty? And he got his answer. And my father never divulged it to anyone else, and I'm not going to divulge it now.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: I wouldn't want you to go against your father's wishes, but I still want to know as much history as I can about my grandfather. I'm not looking for him to be wrong, nor am I trying to find out if he was right, but it sure would make me feel better to know.
Mr. SWARTZFAGER: I certainly appreciate what you're saying, but we have to take into consideration there was a pint of bourbon involved. I mean, this man was facing death in the matter of an hour or so, and what a person would say at that time, especially if they had been drinking, I just don't think it's fair to repeat them.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: But I also know that a drunk speaks a sober mind, and at that point in time, what did he have to lose, anyway?
Mr. SWARTZFAGER: I wish I wouldn't have told you now. I mean, I really do because as much as I know that everybody wants me to say he said yes, he did it, or no, he didn't do it, it's I can't say that. I'm not going to say that.
To keep rehashing something that happened 60 years ago can't possibly bring about any good now.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: But me as a granddaughter, I'm here to get information because there is another generation ahead of me that carries the McGee name now, and they don't even know any of the history of what happened. So that's my place.
Mr. SWARTZFAGER: Bridgette, I just I certainly have a great deal of compassion for your family. I mean, none of you all did anything. I'll give you your answer because I think you're entitled to it, but I'm going to do it for you, off the record, alone. Is that fair enough?
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: That's fair.
Mr. SWARTZFAGER: All right.
(Soundbite of recording device shutting off)
Mr. BOBBY BENDON(ph): How are you doing? I'm Bobby Bendon.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Hi Bobby. I'm trying to locate where my grandfather could be buried, where his body could be laid.
Mr. BENDON: If they were buried during that timeframe, they would be in this location right out here somewhere, you know. But there are a lot of gravesites out there that markers have been knocked off and all there is just, like, a little indentation in the ground to show that there's a body that's buried there.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: Do you mind if I just take a look at them?
So you're saying anything that's unmarked could be Willie McGee's gravesite?
Mr. BENDON: Yes.
Ms. MCGEE-ROBINSON: For all I know, I could be standing on top of his grave. Who knows?
Things are never as clear-cut as we want them to be. The words that my grandfather said that night before his execution, I've been keeping those words a secret, but recently, Jon Swartzfager has given me permission to share them. The prosecutor asked my grandfather, as they were drinking: Did you have sex with Wilette Hawkins? And my grandfather looked up at him and said: Yes, sir, but she wanted it just as much as I did.
How do I feel about those words? I don't know. I'm not really sure. I don't think we will ever know the total truth, truth, truth, but I know what I believe, and that's my truth. And so when my kids and my grandkids, my nephews and my great-nephews come to me and ask me who was my great-grandfather, I'll be able to tell them: This is the story of Willie McGee.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: Our story was narrated by Bridgette McGee-Robinson and produced Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries, with help from Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. There is more on the story of Willie McGee at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.