In a Nutshell
Willie Mcgee was an African American man living in Mississippi during the 1940s. In 1951, he was executed for the rape of a white housewife. Amidst threats of lynching, McGee was eventually killed by the notorious travelling electric chair. He was executed in front of 1000 excited people and the event was recorded by local reporters. The chair had followed him over 3 trials and 6 years until his sentence was passed down. In his last trial, he claimed that he was having an affair with the woman and the sex was consensual. Many see this as proof of Mcgee’s wrongful sentencing. One thing is for sure – his sentence and trial were unfairly biased due to his color.
The Whole Bushel
By all accounts, Willie McGee was a confident, strong man. He was married to a woman named Eliza Jane Patton and had four children. In 1945, racial segregation was still heavily enforced. It was clear to the residents in Laurel, Mississippi which side of the fence you were allowed on. During the time, many believed it was impossible for a white woman to even consider consensual intercourse with a black man.
The white housewife told the authorities that a black man had snuck into her house at night. She claimed he held a knife to her infant’s throat to keep her quiet and then raped her. She was unable to see his face, but she knew he was black. McGee was later arrested on unrelated charges. On investigation, the police discovered he had been in the area at the time of the alleged rape. McGee claims he was beaten until he confessed that he had raped the woman.
By the time the court case came around, McGee was mute and terrified. Special care was taken to protect him from mobs that threatened to kill him by lynching. His attorney noticed that he had wet himself during the proceedings. He was sentenced to death in under 3 minutes by the all-white jury. The court-appointed attorney argued that a second trial be given and the venue be changed. During the second trial, the death sentence was handed down again – this time in eleven minutes.
Another trial was granted, this time with a mixed (but compromised) jury. McGee had previously claimed innocence but now he changed his story. He claimed that he was having an affair with the white woman. Too afraid of mob violence before, he had finally confessed his truth. Reports from the time tell us that the white community was scandalized. Even though the case had attracted the attention of American icons like Einstein, McGee was still sentenced to death.
Mississippi made use of the traveling electric chair for a little over 15 years. It was dismantled, carried to the courthouse that needed it, assembled and plugged in. This chair haunted Willie McGee during his six long years spent in prison and finally brought him to his end in 1951. The night before his execution, he said this to the prosecutor; “She wanted it just as much as I did”. His guilt is questionable, but the fairness of his trail is not. In a letter to his wife, he wrote; ‘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’.
We will never truly know what happened, but Willie McGee lives on as an icon of Civil Rights in America.