Author of 1940s Rape Trial Account to Speak at W&L

Lexington, VA • Thursday, September 09, 2010

On September 22, 2010, the Frances Lewis Law Center at Washington and Lee School of Law will sponsor a public lecture by Alex Heard about his recently published book, The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South.  Heard will speak at 1 p.m. in the Millhiser Moot Court Room.  A book signing will follow and copies of The Eyes of Willie McGee will be available for sale.

Willie McGee, whose plot uncannily parallels that of the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, revives the much publicized rape trial and execution of Willie McGee in Mississippi between 1945 and 1951.  Willie McGee's ongoing trial for allegedly raping a white woman, Willette Hawkins, triggered massive domestic and international criticism of the state of racism in the South.  Heard, also a Mississippi native, conducted five years of interviews, archival research, and investigative reporting to portray the events surrounding the McGee trial.

Heard recalls the "spooky experience" of listening to his journalism professor's radio broadcast recording from the courthouse lawn the night of McGee's execution.  Remembering this recording while stumbling across a passing reference of the trial spurred his reporting instinct.  "My chief goal," Heard explains, "was to tell the story accurately, relying as much as possible on original sources, with an eye toward answering fundamental questions about this long-dead tale, starting with: Who was telling the truth, Willie or Willette?"

In The Eyes of Willie McGee, Heard follows the dramatic turns Willie McGee's case took during three circuit-court trials, several reversals and stays, and four failed bids for a full review by the U.S. Supreme Court.  His initial defense was led by several white, male Mississippi lawyers.  As the case was appealed, the communist-affiliated Civil Rights Congress managed the defense.  Heard details the social volatility surrounding the case explaining, "This conflict between two irreconcilable sides—southern segregationists versus northern Communists and various left-wing progressives who worked with them—led to rancor, violence, and the use of anything-goes tactics as the legal battle ground on."

Heard is an Editorial Director for Outside magazine.  For his last book, Apocalypse Pretty Soon (1999), Heard travelled across the Unites States to interview individuals who believed the end of the world was at hand.  He has worked as an editor and writer at The New York Times Magazine, Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, and Slate.

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