Willie McGee (convict)

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Willie McGee

Willie McGee (died May 8, 1951) was an African American man from Laurel, Mississippi, who was sentenced to death in 1945 and executed on Tuesday, May 8, 1951, for the capital crime of raping a young white married woman in the predawn hour on November 2, 1945.[1] [2][3] McGee's legal case became a cause célèbre that attracted worldwide attention. 

Early life[edit]

Willie McGee was born in Pachuta, Clarke County, Mississippi, around 1916 to Bessie and Jasper McGee, Sr.,[4] who was a laborer at Eastman Gardiner Lumber Company. He had one brother, Jasper McGee, Jr. McGee lived with his parents and brother at 64 3d Red Line, an area of red-colored company housing. McGee attended local, segregated schools for a short time before starting to work as a youth. He married Eliza Jane Patton on April 15, 1935. McGee had four children with Patton: Willie Earl, Della, Gracie Lee and Mary. During the trial a woman named Rosalee McGee claimed she was the mother of the children and McGee's wife. She only appeared after the charges were filed and the date of the alleged marriage would have occurred while McGee and Patton were still married.[5]

Author Alex Heard published his book on the case, The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South (2010).[5] During his research for the book, he believes he solved the mystery of Rosalee while researching the book The Eyes of Willie McGee. Heard states: "So who was Rosalee? I was able to figure out that her real name was Rosetta Saffold, where she came from (the area around Lexington, Miss., which is far from Laurel, where Willie McGee lived), and that she moved to New York after the case ended and kept an affiliation with the Civil Rights Congress, the Communist-backed group that paid for McGee’s defense. I think she met him in the late 1940s, through the bars of his jail cell in Jackson, Miss.—while visiting a cousin of hers who was on death row in the same jail. I also think she legitimately cared about him and grew to care about the civil-rights and civil-liberties causes pushed by the CRC".[6]


On November 3, 1945, McGee was arrested in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on a charge of grand larceny for stealing a truck owned by the Laurel Wholesale Grocery where he was employed. Two of his friends placed him in the vicinity at the time of a criminal assault of a woman in her residence, leading to him being questioned about the assault.[1] On November 9, 1945, McGee was charged with the assault. The affidavit was filed as the result of a detailed confession received by the county attorney that he drank, gambled, lost his company's money, and then parked his truck near the home of the assault victim.[5] It was reported that he had made an oral confession shortly after his arrest. The signed confession was witnessed by the county attorney, City Policeman Jeff Montgomery, and Deputy Sheriff J. P. Royals at the capital city jail.[1]


First trial[edit]

On Monday, December 3, 1945, McGee was indicted by the special grand jury on a charge of rape, was arraigned in the circuit court, and a plea of not guilty was entered for him by the district attorney.[1]

On Thursday, December 6, 1945, Judge Burkitt Collins opened the special session of circuit court for the trial, saying:[1]

The great war is over and our country is saved. It is a country of law, governed by law, a law under which all are considered equal. We need bow to none. The only majesty we recognize is 'His Majesty, the Law.' It is the law that has given us liberty, freedom, the right to the pursuit of happiness, that protects us in our rights, personal, and property.

We owe much to His Majesty, the Law, including the protection of our families. But any man who claims these protective blessings has no right to violate the law. He must subscribe to that system of government that says all men are equal. If he claims the right to violate the law, a neighbor has the same right. If we continue to have liberty and freedom and enjoy the blessings of freedom, it will be because we have upheld the law.

We are called today to see the law is properly administered, to see that those who have transgressed are brought to justice. We cannot do this by taking the law into our own hands, and running over the law. We must follow the law in every particular. We must do this, whether it suits us or not, if we would have freedom, for if the law breaks down in one place, then another, it soon collapses.

Since the last session of court, there are those who have forgotten the blessings of their government. Let these understand that all citizens who believe in the majesty of the law will not stand for its transgression. This goes for all citizens - regardless of how we feel, how provoked we are, for it is not only the duty of the courts and the officers but of all citizens living under the prosecution of the law to see that the law is preserved. Go out and do your full duty.[1]

The testimony unfolded with the story of McGee keeping the money from a Laurel Wholesale Grocery delivery he made and using it to buy whiskey and to gamble with friends. The next morning, employees of the grocery store found McGee asleep in the delivery truck at the store. He was picked up in Hattiesburg by the police the next afternoon. He pointed out where he parked the car and the house he had entered. He confessed his guilt and reiterated the statement which he later signed. The jury deliberated for two and a half minutes to return the guilty verdict.[1] On December 11, 1945, McGee was sentenced to death.[1]

The first trial attracted wide attention because the use of National Guard Troops were used to escort the defendant from the Hinds county jail to Laurel. McGee was whisked into the courtroom under the protection of guns and taken back to Jackson by military caravan by nightfall.[1]

Attorney Forrest B. Jackson contended that McGee's constitutional rights were violated during his trial in and filed an appeal in the Mississippi supreme court. The appeal was allowed on January 3, 1946.[1]

Second trial[edit]

The second trial was set for November 4, 1946, on the charge of rape which was a capital offense in Mississippi. Judge John C. Stennis presided, and granted a change of venue to Forrest County (Hattiesburg) for the trial.[1] After 11 minutes of deliberation, the 12 white men jury returned a guilty verdict. Judge Burkitt Collins pronounced the death sentence by electric chair on December 20, 1946.[1] On November 23, 1946, a notice of appeal to the state supreme court was filed in the Forrest County Circuit Clerk's office.

Third trial[edit]

McGee's third trial began on February 16, 1948, and was granted by the State Supreme Court because African Americans were excluded from the juries which indicted and convicted him. For the first time in Jones County history, well known African Americans from Laurel, Dr. T. J. Barnes, Claude Arrington, and T. D. Brown served as part of the 18-man grand jury for the February Term of Circuit Court for the Second District of Jones county. Judge Burkitt Collins charged the jury, "These are momentous times and we must be guided by the law alone." [1]

Testimony revealed that McGee entered the victim's home through an outside window. He then removed his shoes and crawled into the darkened room where the young mother lay on a bed with her sick baby. She had been up most of the night with the child. Smelling like whiskey, he throttled her by the throat with his strong hands, then he threatened to kill her and the child if she made an outcry. He tore the night clothing from her body. Following the assault, McGee threatened to return and kill her and the baby if she told anyone. He fled into the night and raced away in the stolen truck that he had parked some distance from the home. His victim, smeared with menstrual blood, ran unclad from the house and to the home of a neighbor.[1]

The testimony of the victim's husband was that their baby had been sick that night and that neither went to bed before 4 a.m., and then he occupied a back room 25 to 30 feet away from his wife's room. He knew nothing had happened until his wife came and woke him and then she rushed to the home of a neighbor. He said the lights were off at the time and that investigation disclosed a broken wire on the back porch. An employee of the Mississippi Power company corroborated the testimony about the broken wire.[1]

The testimony of the companion of McGee on the night of the assault stated he was on a wild joyride with a friend in the wholesale grocery truck McGee was driving. He testified that they visited Mt. Olive, Taylorsville, Collins, and returned to Laurel consuming three half-pints of whiskey on the jaunt. They visited gambling houses in Laurel and left a house in "The Bottoms" about 4:00 am in the truck. He left McGee and the truck at Masonite Drive and arrived at his own home half a block away at 4:15 am. McGee told another companion a few days before the rape, "I'm going to get me a white woman."[1]

Multiple witnesses testified seeing the wholesale truck near the scene of the alleged crime at about 5:00 am the morning of the assault.[1]

The doctor who examined the victim on the morning of November 2nd found evidence of attack and bruises. She was in a highly nervous and hysterical condition and had to be given sedatives for three days. She remained a patient at the Hattiesburg infirmary for a week.[1]

After deliberating within less than an hour, on March 6, 1948, the jury returned to the court room with a guilty verdict. When the judge asked if McGee had anything to say, he responded, "Thank you, Judge, I have no fear."[1] The execution was set by Judge F. Burkitt Collins for Friday, April 9, 1948.

Stays of execution[edit]

Justice Sidney Smith of the state's highest court stayed the execution for June 3, 1949. [1] On June 3, 1949, McGee was granted another stay of execution five hours before he was scheduled to die. McGee was then scheduled for execution on July 27, 1950.[1]

After his conviction, McGee was defended by the Civil Rights Congress, which mounted a public campaign as well as filing legal appeals of his case. Efforts made by the Civil Rights Congress made the false claim that the confessed rapist was a yard boy in the crime neighborhood and that is how he first met his victim. The investigating party called on residents in the vicinity of the crime and were told that McGee had never been employed in that section.[1]

July 24, 1950, Bella Abzug, then a young attorney for the Communist-affiliated Civil Rights Congress, represented McGee's appeals in Mississippi and the Supreme Court in one of the first civil rights cases of her legal career.[7] Supreme Court Justice Harold Burton ordered the fourth stay in July 26, 1950 creating an international affair; however the full U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear McGee's final appeal.[8]

Governor Fielding L. Wright was threatened with death by the Northern Communists unless he freed McGee.[1]

The Negro Legionnaires, in a unanimously adopted resolution, condemned subversive and communistic individuals who invaded the city in a Civil Rights Congress campaign to free the confessed and convicted rapist.[1]

McGee frequently changed his story. In a last attempt, McGee claimed that he had previous relations with the victim; that he had worked with the victim's husband and that he was gambling at another place when the rape took place. The attorney general rejected his claims as the rape victim was living in another state at the time McGee claimed previous relations.

Mayor Carroll Gartin identified Bella Abzug and John Coe as "Communist friends" of McGee with neither "decency nor humanity in their false and reckless efforts to besmirch the name and honor of his helpless victim in order that he might longer live to laugh at the law. As though she has not already endured enough suffering at his bestial hands, his friends now try to cast a stench of dark suspicion about her. The filth and foulness of such obscenity is a dastard insult to the name and honor of a Laurel wife and mother who I know, and all Laurel knows, is fine and noble and pure."[1]

Defamation of character lawsuit[edit]

The rape victim filed a defamation of character lawsuit against the Communist Party and Bella Abzug, the New York attorney who represented the Civil Rights Congress to clear her name. The victim won a libel suit against the Daily Worker, a newspaper published in New York City by the Communist Party, for publishing false and malicious claims. [1]. The Daily Worker’s parent company and the Communist Party spent years searching for additional evidence that the affair happened. So they sent a private detective to Mississippi to investigate. No witnesses or evidence were found, so they settled out of court in 1955, paying the victim $5,000 and printing two retractions.

Public figures[edit]

Author William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven. His remarks were quoted by McGee's supporters for the purpose of gathering local backing for McGee. On April 7, 1951, Faulkner retracted his statement on McGee in a letter to the editor of the Laurel Leader-Call:[1]

With evidence in the courts that a threat to kill a child was used, any statement coming from me and reflecting on his guilt of the crime by violence or threat, was wrong, and I correct it. I knew too little about the facts of the matter to go on record.[5]

Other notable public figures that spoke out were the Communist Party activist Jessica Mitford[9], Civil Rights Congress activist Paul Robeson, and Civil Rights activist Josephine Baker.


The night before McGee was electrocuted on May 8, 1951, by the state of Mississippi, he wrote a farewell letter to Rosetta Saffold (alias Rosalee McGee):

Tell the people the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro down... They can't do this if you and the children keep on fighting. Never forget to tell them why they killed their daddy. I know you won't fail me. Tell the people to keep on fighting.

Your true husband, Will McGee.[8]

Among the 60 men watching him die where the husband of his rape victim, her brother, and two of her brothers-in-law. The press was allowed to attend the execution. A crowd of more than 1500 were on the courthouse lawn with no signs of violence or vengeful thinking.[10] The execution was broadcast on radio.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Horne, Raymond (May 30, 2011). The Three Trials & Aftermath of the Willie McGee Case as Reported in the Laurel Leader-Call, Laurel, Mississippi.
  2. ^ a b "Willie McGee and the Travelling Electric Chair Radio", Radio Diaries, NPR, Retrieved 5 June 2010
  3. ^ "How an obscure FBI rule is ensuring the destruction of irreplaceable historical records", Slate,, Retrieved 24 December 2015
  4. ^ 1930 United States Federal Census for Willie McGee
  5. ^ a b c d Heard, Alex (2010-05-11). "The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South". Harper. ISBN 0061284157.
  6. ^ https://mcgeebook.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/rosalee-news/
  7. ^ Braun Levine, Suzanne; Thom, Mary (2007). Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 49–56. ISBN 0-374-29952-8.
  8. ^ a b Jerome, Fred (2003). The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist. Macmillan. p. 129. ISBN 0-312-31609-7.
  9. ^ Mitford, Jessica A Fine Old Conflict
  10. ^ Cite error: The named reference Horne was invoked but never defined (see the help page).

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