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

Intro:

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 Laurel Courthouse.

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 it? 

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 morning.

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.

[Ringing]

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.

[Knock]
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 execution.

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 the time.

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 execution.

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 McGee.

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.
[Car]

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 be executed.

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 listening.

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 about.

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.
[ambience]

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 be.
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 Willie McGee.

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.