On December 3, 1945, Willie McGee, an African-American resident of Laurel, was indicted by an all-white Jones County grand jury for raping a married white woman. McGee, in his thirties, was a delivery man at a local grocery store. Although McGee’s appointed trial counsel could not confer with him prior to trial because of McGee’s distraught emotional state, McGee’s capital murder case was tried three days following the indictment on December 6, 1945. McGee was found guilty and sentenced to death by an all-white Jones County jury. However, McGee’s first death sentence was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court because the trial court failed to consider McGee’s motion for a change of venue.
McGee’s second trial, which took place in Forrest County, Mississippi, also resulted in a guilty conviction and death sentence. Again, McGee’s death sentence was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found the exclusion of African-American Jones County residents on its grand juries, who are responsible for returning indictments against the accused, violated the rights of equal protection under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.
In November 1948, McGee was again indicted for the alleged rape. McGee’s third trial was held in Jones County. McGee was sentenced to death by an all-white Jones County jury. The Mississippi Supreme Court denied McGee’s subsequent appeals. The case involving Willie McGee received national and international attention. In fact, civil rights attorneys from out of state came forward to represent McGee during his appeals process. These attorneys included New York attorney Bella S. Abzug, Washington, D.C., attorney David Rein, and Florida attorney John Coe.
McGee’s advocates argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court that new evidence had emerged since the trial, including the fact that Willie McGee was a victim of mob violence during the trial and the jury had knowledge of this violence. Further, McGee’s advocates argued that McGee was subjected to beatings and threats by deputies once he was arrested for the alleged rape.
Mississippians such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wright reacted to the controversial case. In March 1951, Faulkner (the 1950 Nobel Prize Laureate) spoke to a group of northern and southern McGee supporters, arguing that McGee was framed and innocent of the charges against him. Wright raised $18,000 for McGee’s widow and children. Williams even included reference to the McGee case in his play Orpheus Descending through the character of Carol Catrere (Act 1, Scene 1):
“And when that Willie McGee thing came along, he was sent to the chair for having improper relations with a white whore. [Her voice is like a passionate cantation.] I made a fuss about it. I put on a potato sack and set out for the Capitol on foot. This was in winter. I walked barefoot in this burlap sack to deliver personal protest to the governor of the state. Oh, you know how far I got, six miles out of town. Hooted, jeered at, even spit onâ€”every step of the way and then arrested.”
United States Supreme Court Justice Burton granted McGee a stay of execution on July 26, 1950. However, once McGee’s habeas corpus relief was denied, McGee was executed on May 8, 1951.
Payne, Cleveland. Laurel: A History of the Black Community, 1882-1962.
McGee v. State, 26 So.2d 680 (Miss. 1946)
McGee v. State, 33 So.2d 843 (Miss. 1948)
McGee v. State, 40 So.2d 160 (Miss. 1949)
McGee v. State, 47 So.2d 155 (Miss. 1950)
McGee v. State, 51 So.2d 783 (Miss. 1951)