Author to speak on civil rights
Mississippi author Alex Heard has spent the last five years researching and writing about a real life case that parallels the events in To Kill a Mockingbird. In his book The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crowe South, Heard investigates the case of a young black man from Laurel, Miss., who was put to death for the alleged rape of a white housewife.
Heard said McGee’s case is an often-overlooked major event in the early civil rights movement. The case gained national attention when the Civil Rights Commission, a group affiliated with the Communist party, came to McGee’s defense.
The 50th anniversary of the Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird has brought light to just how far society has come from the times of racial injustice and oppression in the South.
Heard was introduced to the story while studying at Vanderbilt University under journalism professor Jim Leeson, who also served as Vanderbilt’s director of student publications and had been a young reporter in Mississippi at the time of the trail.
“I became interested in the case in a roundabout way when Jim Leeson shared a live reel-to-reel recording of the execution of Willie McGee with me and a few other students,” Heard said. “Leeson had held onto the tape as an interesting artifact to show students that it wasn’t that long ago when racial injustice was prevalent in the South and how far we had come since then.”
The recording struck a chord with Heard, and upon further investigation, he discovered that nobody had ever written about the story in length. So five years ago, he began researching the facts of the case in his spare time. Heard wanted to get as much firsthand information as possible and his search for living relatives led him to Ann London Liberman, the daughter of Alvin London, a Mississippi lawyer who came to McGee’s defense. Liberman is also the Director of Alumni and Career Services for the UH Graduate College of Social Work.
“My father never spoke of the case to me,” Liberman said. “Only that he had defended a black man who was wrongly put to death and the injustice of it saddened him.”
Heard agrees that the injustice in the legal system at the time is evident, but the question still looms — was it rape or was it an illicit affair?
“This experience really reminded me about how important it is as a journalist to get face-to-face with the people who are going to be affected by what you say,” Heard said. “In this case, a lot of people assumed the woman was lying, and that caused a great deal of pain for her family.”
The Eyes of Willie McGee does not promise to solve the case, Heard said. But it does give readers a lot of new information so that people can draw their own conclusions.
Alex Heard will be at the Rockwell Pavilion at the M.D. Anderson Library at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 to sign and discuss his new book. The Graduate College of Social Work is sponsoring the event along with the Law Center and the Department of African-American Studies. All students are encouraged to attend.