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Download The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South Audiobook

Extended Audio Sample The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, by Alex Heard Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (85 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Alex Heard Narrator: J. D. Jackson Publisher: HarperCollins Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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In 1945, Willie McGee, a young African American man from Laurel, Mississippi, was sentenced to death for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. At first, McGee’s case was barely noticed, covered only in hostile Mississippi newspapers and far-left publications such as the Daily Worker. Then Bella Abzug, a young New York labor lawyer, was hired by the Civil Rights Congress—an aggressive civil rights organization with ties to the Communist Party of the United States—to oversee McGee’s defense. Together with William Patterson, the son of a slave and a devout believer in the need for revolutionary change, Abzug and a group of white Mississippi lawyers risked their lives to plead McGee’s case. After years of court battles, McGee’s supporters flooded President Harry S. Truman and the U.S. Supreme Court with clemency pleas, and famous Americans—including William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Norman Mailer, and Josephine Baker—spoke out on McGee’s behalf.

By the time the case ended in 1951 with McGee’s public execution in Mississippi’s infamous traveling electric chair, “Free Willie McGee” had become a rallying cry among civil rights activists, progressives, leftists, and Communist Party members. Their movement had succeeded in convincing millions of people worldwide that McGee had been framed and that the real story involved a consensual love affair between him and Mrs. Hawkins—one that she had instigated and controlled. As Heard discovered, this controversial theory is a doorway to a tangle of secrets that spawned a legacy of confusion, misinformation, and pain that still resonates today. The mysteries surrounding McGee’s case live on in this provocative tale of justice in the Deep South.

Based on exhaustive documentary research—court transcripts, newspaper reports, archived papers, letters, FBI documents, and the recollections of family members on both sides—Mississippi native Alex Heard tells a moving and unforgettable story that evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, North and South, in America. 

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Quotes & Awards

  • “The case of Willie McGee is an enduring mystery, but there’s no doubt he was the victim of a primitive and unfair judicial system. Alex Heard’s excellent account of his life and death is tragic, sad, and very compelling.”

    John Grisham

  • “In this riveting personal journey, Alex Heard explores the political and social forces at play and then reveals the fascinating human drama underneath it all. It’s like a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird, but with even more subtlety and complexity.”

    Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author

  • “Heard succeeds impressively…Through gritty, precise reporting, he reveals the human cost of mob violence and ‘legal lynchings’ in Mississippi…Heard tells of those who fought against lynchings and of those who died in their midst…A rich narrative.”

    New York Times Book Review

  • The Eyes of Willie McGee should be must reading for serious students of twentieth century US history…A vivid, and essential, story of a rape trial and conviction, lynch mobs and complex personal relationships.”

    Chicago Tribune

  • A 2010 Washington Post Best Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee for Best Fact Crime

Listener Opinions

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Tamara | 12/13/2013

    " Very fascinating yet troubling read, its amazing that this happened in the last 70 years. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 by Kate | 3/28/2013

    " Disjointed, repetitive, and lacks a conclusion. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Tamara | 3/17/2011

    " Very fascinating yet troubling read, its amazing that this happened in the last 70 years. "

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About the Author

Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine. He has worked as an editor and writer at The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Wired, and The New Republic, and is the author of Apocalypse Pretty Soon. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.