Alex Heard’s new book The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South documents a case that’s been called a real-life version of To Kill a Mockingbird: the 1954 trial of Willie McGee for raping a white woman, Willette Hawkins. As you’d expect, the truth is murkier than the fiction: Defense and prosecution offered accounts of the facts that were equally riddled with inconsistencies (the defense claimed McGee and Hawkins were having an affair), and the results leave even a modern-day reader in doubt about the truth. The case not only makes fascinating courtroom drama, but could serve as a microcosm of ’50s race relations — McGee found support from the Communist party, William Faulkner and Norman Mailer, but was sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Heard, a Vanderbilt graduate, will discuss his book as part of the McNeely Pigott & Fox Speaker Series.
Emily Bartlett Hines