WILLIE MCGEE AND THE TRAVELING ELECTRIC CHAIR
Narrated by Bridgette McGee-Robinson
Produced by Radio Diaries (www.radiodiaries.org)
Originally broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered 5/7/10
On the night of May 7th, 1951... close to a thousand people
gathered around the courthouse in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi.
They had come to witness the execution of Willie McGee, a young black
man convicted of raping a white woman. The local radio station was
there at the courthouse...broadcasting the event live. The case had
wound through three trials in six years, garnered support from William
Faulkner, Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein and others, and had been covered
in newspapers around the country... and the world. But after the
execution, the story of Willie McGee was largely forgotten. Some sixty
years later, McGee’s granddaughter, Bridgette, teamed up with [the
American production company] Radio Diaries to search for the true story
of Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair.
Archive: This is a case that has gone through six
years of law courts. Certainly it’s a scene that no one likes to see,
the execution of a human being, but when it becomes necessary it must be
done. Here earlier this evening we got a glimpse of the electric chair,
and it was a frightening thing to be sure.
Bridgette: Growing up I didn’t know anything about
this story. Nothing. It was never talked about in our house. My name is
Bridgette McGee Robinson, I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I am the
granddaughter of Willie McGee.
Archive: On the grounds of the Laurel courthouse they
wait for the news that Willie McGee has been executed for his crime.
Bridgette: I remember I was about 12 or 13 years old. I
was with my mom. We were cleaning out her room. She was under her
mattress, and there were these newspaper articles in a plastic bag. And
there was a photograph. So I said, well who’s this man? And she said,
that’s your grandfather. And I said, well, what happened to him? But she
snatched it from me and told me to put it back. She said you wouldn’t
understand that right now. So I let it go for years. And basically on my
mother’s deathbed is when she began to talk to me about it and she told
me to go find out the truth. I told her okay.
[driving] Welcome to Mississippi. I haven’t been to
Mississippi since I was a little girl. But here I am.
I came here to find out what happened to my grandfather. I want
to know the good, and I also want to hear the bad. I want to hear it
from the blacks; I want to hear it from the whites. I want to know
everything. I don’t know where my journey will lead. But I know where it
has to start.
Harvey Warren: we’re walking up the steps of the
Bridgette: I met up with a man named Harvey Warren,
who grew up in Laurel Mississippi.
Warren: this is the location where the electric chair
was brought and Willie McGee was executed.
Bridgette: do you know of anyone who may talk about
Warren: even today most people do not want to talk
about it. I think you have to put in your grasp of what took place the
climate. Everything was segregated. There was our side of the tracks,
which was mostly across the GMO, and then there was the white folks’
side of the tracks, which was mostly across the Southern. And lives were
lived that way. I knew even as a six year old, where I could go, and
where I could not go. And Willie McGee obviously, we knew that he had
gone on the wrong side of the tracks.
Bridgette: Laurel Leader Call, Nov 5th 1945. Willie
McGee, 30-year-old Laurel Negro, was arrested in connection with the
assault of a white woman, which occurred at her residence Friday
Anne Sanders: my name is Anne Sanders. I’m a native of
Laurel, Mississippi, and back in 1945 I covered the first Willie McGee
trial for the Laurel Leader Call newspaper.
It was just unheard of, a black man raping a white woman. I
mean, the fact that he came into a white woman’s house and raped her, it
just incensed everybody, it really did. The rumor got out that they
were going to get him out of he jail and they were going to lynch him.
So when they came for the trial, they brought him in a National Guard
truck for his protection.
Jon Swartzfager. My name’s Jon Swartzfager. My father
was the district attorney, and a prosecutor of Willie McGee.
The truth of the matter is, Willie McGee was going to be
convicted. You have 12 white males on the jury, who have to make a
decision, are we going to believe the white lady or are we going to
believe the black man?
Sanders: when Mrs. Hawkins testified, she said that
she had a baby about 3 months old. Her husband had gone up into the
living room to go to sleep. And Willie McGee had come in, got into the
bed, and put a knife to the baby’s throat, and said if you don’t, you
know, agree, I will kill your baby. So of course she couldn’t do
anything else. And Willie McGee didn’t defend himself. During that whole
trial, I never heard him utter a single word. I noticed the chair was
wet, pants were wet, and there was a puddle under the chair. He had wet
himself. The decision was real quick. The jury was out only a few
minutes. The judge said, your sentence is to be electrocuted.
Della McGee Johnson: hello
Bridgette: Can you hear me Aunt Della?
Johnson: Yeah I can hear you.
Bridgette: Well, I’m calling you and I got you on the
recorder cause I’m taping this information. Okay Aunt Della, say your
name and who you are. Go ahead.
Johnson: my name is Della Ree McGee Johnson.
Bridgette: And you are?
Johnson: Willie McGee’s oldest daughter.
Bridgette: So Aunt Della, when you first heard about
what happened to granddaddy ‚€” you, momma, Aunt Gracie, Willie Earl ‚€”
you know, when they first came to you guys and said he’d been arresred,
do you remember that?
Bridgette: My aunt Della is the only child of Willie
McGee left. And she said, “My momma told me the whole story of happened
with the alleged victim and my grandfather.”
Johnson: I was told that they had been going together.
And then when they finally got caught, they accused him of rape.
Bridgette: Did they say how long they had been dating,
or going together?
Johnson: I don’t know if it was years or what, but
back in the south, black men couldn’t fool with no white woman, but the
white men could fool with the black women.
Bridgette: So Aunt Della, you know I’m doing all this
research. Do you think I’m opening up a can of worms?
Johnson: Could be.
Bridgette: Well bye, I love you.
Warren: There is the white view and the black view of
what took place with Willie McGee. Blacks for the most part, we
understood that Willie did not rape this woman‚€” he was in a
relationship with this woman. And with Willie McGee being self
confident, good looking, pretty sure about himself, he was too bold to,
once they got a whiff of it, just leave town, go to Detroit or
something. He was going to remain here. And that was the result.
Bridgette: I’m interviewing all these people, reading
letters, newspaper articles, the court documents ‚€” but I’m still
missing some things. I would love to speak with Willette Hawkins, the
alleged victim. She died a long time ago, and her family does not want
to talk about this. They do not want to bring this up anymore.
Raymond Horne: Come in.
Bridgette: I am here at the home of Raymond Horne, who
was a young reporter for the laurel leader call at the time of the
Horne: I just wonder, after 60 years almost, why this
is so revived?
Bridgette: I’m doing it because I want some history.
I’m like the family historian.
Horne: I can be very, very sympathetic with you,
because I’m the historian of the family myself, and I believe in that
kind of thing. But I’ve discovered especially in family histories that
usually there are some wonderful things that you find, and some very bad
things that you find.
Now one of his defenses was that it was consensual. Did you hear
that? That it was consensual. Now that is one of the craziest arguments
that could be made.
Bridgette: But hearing that it was consensual, it wouldn’t be
no different than a black woman going with a white man. It happened all
Horne: Personally in my lifetime, I was never aware of a
white woman that had a consensual relationship with a black man. I had
never heard of it. I don’t find it plausible at all. But there’s
no way to say this was the way it was. Because the parties that knew are
deceased. There’s no way to know, period.
Bridgette: Laurel Leader Call. 12/27/1945. The case of Willie
McGee, Negro, convicted of raping a white woman has been appealed to
the state supreme court. The case has been taken over by the newly
formed Civil Rights Congress.
Liz Abzug: A case like that sometimes becomes a symbol. My
name is Liz Abzug. My mother was Bella Abzug, former congresswoman from
New York, and she was one of the defense attorneys in the Willie McGee
case. You know, coming into a small town in rural Mississippi, you
know, these communist, lefties, northern Jews, people were kind of in
disbelief. It was like, why is she here?
Sanders: What’s her name, Bella Abdul? She come down here to
make sure he had a good trial, and sometimes, she was just a downright
nuisance. I mean, you’d tell her something, and it was like, ‘well, why
do you know that? How do you know that?’ She just thought he was being
railroaded. And she took it all the way to the Supreme Court to stay the
Bridgette: New York Times, April 1, 1951. Several thousand
protesters paraded in Times Square against the execution of Willie
McGee. Several large groups chanted, Jim Crow must go, Save Willie
Horne: One black man and one white woman in a little town,
back then probably 20,000 people ‚€” I don’t know why this struck a
fire, but it blew.
Donna Mills: Some very well known figures became involved.
William Faulkner. Albert Einstein. There were even leaflets dropped over
soldiers fighting the Korean War to let them know about Willie McGee.
Swartzfager: It became more of a cause, and I think Mr. McGee
got lost in the magnitude of all of it.
Horne: His case covered five years and five months, and
involved three trials, six stays, and three state Supreme Court
refusals. And then that was it. That was it.
Bridgette: The Mississippi Correctional Officers Academy
Yes, we’d like to come in and see the traveling electric chair.
Yes ma’am. It’s been here a long time. It’s over in that front lot.
Bridgette: Mississippi used to have what they called a
traveling electric chair. They would take it from town to town, they
would set it up in the courthouse, electrocute the person, pack it up,
and take it to the next spot. And we come around the corner and there is
this electric chair, not on display, just sitting in a corner with some
baseball trophies. It was not what I expected at all.
Are we sure this is the right one? I thought the electric chair
would be made of metal with a head thing. Just an old wooden rocking
chair is what it looks like. Chair that someone would sit on their porch
and watch the cars go by. Who in their right mind came up with this? I
don’t want to record anymore.
Archive: I’m sure that you have heard over both radio
stations, WFOR and WAML, that all channels open to Willie McGee have
been exhausted, and the execution is to take place here this evening.
Horne: I went up that night to watch the execution. And the
crowd was already gathering. There were hundreds of people all over.
Sanders: The weather was good. It was a nice night cause it
wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. People were visiting with each
other, talking, passing time away.
Archive: I think the majority of the crowd is now on this
side of the courthouse, where they can see and hear the power unit for
the state of Mississippi’s portable electric chair.
Swartzfager: The execution was broadcast on the radio. And
I’ll never forget, the announcer mentioned that there was a boy who had
climbed up a tree and was looking in the window where Mr. McGee was to
Announcer: Looks like he’s going to see it.
Archive: It’s now straight up of 12 o’clock, and certainly
there can be no more than two minutes left to go. I think the best thing
we can do is just dangle our microphone over so we can catch the sound
of the generator, make sure and pick it up.
Crowd: That’s it! That’s it.
Announcer: Well ladies and gentlemen, we just assume that
that last surge was the final 2,000 volts of electricity that meant the
end of Willie McGee.
Okay, Granville thank you very much. Certainly WFOR and WAML
intended no sensationalism in this broadcast. It was simply that it was a
news story and we intended to cover it as best we could. Thank you for
Warren: Willie McGee’s body was taken to Pete Christian’s
funeral Home. And my mother and father took me over there to view the
body. And I knew what I was going there for. It was like a business that
had to be taken care of. I needed to go see this here. I did not close
my eyes, I did not close my eyes, because there was a specific message
that my daddy wanted me to get. And that message was, you do not get
connected with white girls. You see what happened with Willie McGee. And
I understood that. And my daddy let me see it long enough to get the
message then took me back home.
Horne: After his execution, everyone pretty well washed their
hands. They said we’ve suffered, this city has suffered, we’re glad
it’s over, let’s forget it.
Sanders: The blacks and the whites didn’t talk about
it between them. Even today. None of the blacks I’ve had who’ve helped
me out through the years, we never mentioned it. They believed he was
innocent, and the whites believed he was guilty. Simple as that. It’s
always going to be that way. It was just not a good thing to argue
Bridgette: There is one more person I really need to
see. I am going now to meet Jon Swartzfager. His dad prosecuted my
grandfather back in 1951. He was the one that basically sent my
grandfather to the electric chair.
So we came up to his house, and I was very nervous. He opened up
the door, him and his wife, and they looked at me, and he hugged me.
Swartzfager: I remember the night of the execution very well.
We were all standing in the kitchen. And my father reached up and got a
pint of bourbon. And he took the fifth of whiskey and he hid it inside
his coat. And when he got to the courthouse he told the sheriff he
wanted to see Mr. McGee in a room, alone, just the two of them, and they
sat and they talked while Mr. McGee drank the whiskey. And my father
asked him, did you or did you not rape Mrs. Hawkins? Were you guilty?
And my father never divulged it to anyone else and I’m not going to
divulge it now.
Bridgette: I wouldn’t want you to go against your father’s
wishes but I still want to know as much history as I can about my
grandfather. I’m not looking for him to be wrong, nor am I looking for
him to be right. But it sure would make me feel better to know.
Swartzfager: I certainly appreciate what you’re saying. But
we have to take into consideration that there was a pint of bourbon
involved. I mean this man was facing death in the matter of an hour or
so, and what a person would say at that time, or not say, and especially
if they had been drinking, I just don’t think it’s fair to repeat him.
Bridgette: But I also know that a drunk speaks a sober mind,
and at that moment what did he have to lose?
Swartzfager: I wish I hadn’t of told you now. I really do.
Cause as much as I know everyone wants me to say yes, he did it, or no
he did not, I’m not going to say it. It’s over, it’s done with, it needs
to be put to rest. To keep rehashing something that happened sixty
years ago can’t possibly do anyone any good.
Bridgette: But me as a granddaughter, I’m here to get
information because there’s another generation ahead of me that carries
the McGee name now. And they don’t know any of the information on what
happened. So that’s my place.
Swartzfager: I certainly have a great deal of compassion for
your family. None of y’all did anything. I’ll give you your answer,
cause I think you’re entitled to it. But I’m going to do it for you, off
the record, alone. Is that fair enough? That’s fair.
Bobby Bender: Hey, how you doing? I’m Bobby Bender...
Bridgette: We’re trying to locate where my grandfather could
be possibly buried, where his body could be laid.
Bender:If he was buried in that time period he’d be in that
location out there. But there are a lot of gravesites out there, the
markers have been kicked over and there’s just a little indentation in
the ground to mark where the bodies are buried.
Bridgette: Mind if I take a look? Sure.
Bridgette: So you’re saying anything that’s unmarked could be
Willie McGee’s gravesite. For all I know I could be standing on top of
his gravesite. Who knows.
Bridgette: Things are never as clear-cut as we want them to
The words that my grandfather said that night before his
execution. I’ve been keeping those words a secret. But now Jon
Swartzfager has given me permission to share them. The prosecutor asked
my grandfather as they were drinking, did you have sex with Willete
Hawkins? And my grandfather looked up at him and said, yes sir. But she
wanted it as much as I did.
How do I feel about those words? I don’t know. I’m not really
sure. I don’t think we will ever know the total truth truth truth. But I
know what I believe, and that’s my truth. So when my kids and
grandkids, my nephews and great-nephews, come to me and ask me who was
my great grandfather, I’ll be able to tell them, this is the story of
Narrated by Bridgette Mcgee. Produced by Joe Richman and Samara
Freemark of Radio Diaries, with help from Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Deb
George, and Ben Shapiro.