A Mississippi Mockingbird: The Legal Lynching of Willie McGee, 1945–51

Friday, January 8, 2010: 9:50 AM
Santa Rosa Room (Marriott)
Patricia Michelle Buzard Boyett , University of Southern Mississippi
On a single winter day in 1945, Mississippi whites tried, convicted, and sentenced to death a black veteran, Willie McGee for the rape of a white woman. In the absolutist racial state of Mississippi, McGee could never testify that the white woman accused him of rape after her husband learned of their consensual affair. Authorities used the courts rather than a lynch mob to dispose of McGee because legally sanctioned killings prevented federal intervention. To their chagrin, however, the black-led Civil Rights Congress (CRC) invaded Mississippi’s isolated racial landscape with court appeals and a massive international publicity campaign that accused the state of trying legally to lynch a black man for miscegenation. The CRC campaign threatened the racial caste system for it undermined the assumptions of Mississippi’s herrenvolk democracy, particularly the myth of the black beast and pure white womanhood that sustained it.

Since the McGee case emerged during the Cold War, the CRC leaders compared Mississippi’s racial absolutism to the tyrannies of Stalinism and inverted the southern rape mythology. They emasculated McGee, portraying him as the frail angel, subject to the whims of a white Jezebel and to the tyranny of Mississippi’s white absolutist rulers. White Mississippi fought back by red-baiting the CRC as a communist organization that used the McGee case to undermine the citizenry’s faith in the American judicial system and successfully spun the struggle into a battle against the infiltration of the red menace. Although Mississippi executed McGee, the case became a watershed for racial justice because it exposed the dichotomy between America’s rhetoric of freedom and its brutal oppression of its black citizens. In the aftermath, the white ruling class could neither stem the tide of national and international changes cresting toward Mississippi nor contain the rising currents of black protest churning within its borders.