May 6, 2010The Echoes of an Execution Reverberate Loud and ClearBy LARRY ROHTERIn a small Southern town during the Jim Crow era, a black man is accused of raping a white woman. During his stormy trial there are threats of lynching, as well as intimations that the white woman had been the sexual aggressor.That tale summarizes the plot of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a staple of high school English courses. But it also describes part of the more complicated and less morally uplifting real-life story told in “Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair,” a half-hour documentary to be broadcast Friday on NPR stations as part of the “Radio Diaries” series (www.radiodiaries.org).“This story was murky at the time, and it’s just as murky looking back,” said Joe Richman, the producer of the series. “There’s no way we can find the truth. Was this a rape? Was it him? Was it consensual? Or an affair? To this day it still divides people along racial lines. Everyone has a different agenda and their own version of the facts.”The McGee case became one of those cause célèbres that galvanized opinion, and not just in the United States. Albert Einstein, William Faulkner and Josephine Baker were among those who pleaded for clemency; a young New York lawyer named Bella Abzug handled McGee’s final appeals; and Tennessee Williams would later work a mention of the case into his play “Orpheus Descending.”This much is clear: Mr. McGee, a handyman in Laurel, Miss., was arrested in November 1945 and charged with the rape of a frail young mother of three. After being convicted by all-white juries in three separate trials and having his final appeal rejected by the United States Supreme Court, he was put to death two minutes after midnight on May 8, 1951.For nearly 15 years, beginning in 1940, Mississippi used a “traveling electric chair” that moved from county to county to execute prisoners convicted of capital crimes. What is perhaps most unusual about the McGee case, though, is not the portable electric chair or even the public nature of the execution, but the live radio coverage that accompanied it, which was recorded and is excerpted in Mr. Richman’s documentary.The tape, made by a resident of southeastern Mississippi named Jim Leeson, is also a starting point for a new book on the McGee case to be published next week, Alex Heard’s “The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South” (Harper). Mr. Heard was a student of Mr. Leeson’s at Vanderbilt University in 1979 when he first heard the broadcast of the execution, and said it haunted him for years.“He played that tape for us as a lesson, to remind us how dramatically things had changed in the South since he was our age, and then later donated it to the University of Southern Mississippi,” Mr. Heard said. In 2004, he added, “I started poking around just as a hobby, and found that nobody had ever gone deep with this story.”At the time of the execution Mr. Leeson was a 20-year-old college student and part-time journalist, working for The Hattiesburg American. He would later become a reporter for The Associated Press in Nashville and also covered the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s for the Race Relations Information Center before retiring to the Tennessee countryside, where he died this week.“Even then I believe my interest in events in Mississippi and the South was that of a newsman,” Mr. Leeson wrote in an e-mail message late last month. “During college, 1948-53, I had one of the first tape recorders with two seven-inch reels mounted on the top of a heavy box. I was interested in music primarily” and “don’t recall having any special sense in making the McGee recording other than it was a most interesting and most unusual event to be broadcast, to say the least.”The announcers were broadcasting from outside the courthouse, on the lawn, not from the courtroom where Mr. McGee had been convicted and was to be executed. Confronted with a somber moment of great drama, they adopt a tone of voice that is neutral and dispassionate.But the mood of the crowd on the courthouse lawn, estimated at about 1,000, is clearly celebratory. After the switch is pulled and two surges of electricity from the generator are noted, there are whoops, hollers and cheers, and an excited cry of “That’s it!” can be heard in the background.Mr. Richman’s documentary is also the story of Bridgette McGee-Robinson, one of Willie McGee’s granddaughters. Born and raised in Las Vegas, she recalls being a child and glimpsing newspaper clips that her mother had saved but refused to discuss. As an adult she stumbled across the case while doing research online for a family reunion, trying to determine if the baseball player Willie McGee was a relative.Eventually, she joined forces with both Mr. Richman and Mr. Heard and traveled to Mississippi to try to find out what happened. Raymond Horne, a local reporter who witnessed the execution, dismissed the notion of Willie McGee’s involvement in an interracial affair as “one of the craziest defense arguments that can be made,” while blacks told her it was common knowledge and assured her that her grandfather was playing cards at the time of the alleged rape.“There are still some answers I need to get,” Ms. McGee-Robinson, 48, said in a phone interview. “I’m still not satisfied yet.”As for the tape, “I got a copy in 2000, but I had to put it aside,” she explained. “I didn’t want to listen because I didn’t know what I would hear.” It was only this year, after visiting Mississippi with Mr. Richman, seeing the electric chair in a museum “and taking the long trip down that hallway in my imagination” that she was able to bring herself to listen.All of those involved in trying to unravel the truth of the McGee case noted the similarities to the situations of Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” published nearly a decade after Willie McGee’s death. But they are reluctant to make too much of the parallels.“In the novel you’ve got distinctions between good folks and bad,” Mr. Heard said. “In the McGee case what you get is a judge who was just as prejudiced and lawyers who were facing unrelenting hostility.” He added, “I’m not sure I know what happened.” But given the racial climate and the pressures to obtain a conviction, “I do know it wasn’t fair to execute him.”
10 maggio 2010
L'ultimo grido di WIllie sulle frequenze di WAML
Un magnifico esempio di storiografia orale dal sito dei Radiodiaries, una organizzazione no profit finanziata dai National Endowment for Arts e altre istituzioni e associazioni. Venerdì scorso, come racconta questo articolo del New York Times, è stata trasmessa su NPR la storia di Willie McGee, un nero del Mississipi condannato a morte nel 1945 per la presunta violenza carnale commessa su una donna bianca. Il primo grado del processo di Willie si concluse in tre minuti. La condanna venne eseguita sei anni dopo, malgrado gli altri gradi di giudizio e gli appelli umanitari di personalità come Albert Einstein. L'esecuzione alla sedia elettrica (uno speciale modello semovente che veniva trasportato, con il suo generatore di città in città) venne riprese in una trasmissione unificata dalle stazioni WFOR e WAML. Il documentario dei Radiodaries, disponibile online (insieme a molti altri documenti scritti), contiene l'agghiacciante registrazione "live" della morte dello sfortunato imputato. A ripercorrere, quasi sessant'anni dopo, le tracce del nonno, cancellato dalla storia e dalla cronaca, la nipote Bridget McGee, nata a Las Vegas.