In 1945, Willie McGee, a young African-American man from Laurel, MI, was sentenced to death for allegedly raping Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. Bella Abzug, a young New York labor lawyer, was hired by the Civil Rights Congress—an aggressive arm of the Communist Party in the U.S.—to oversee McGee’s defense, and together with William Patterson, the son of a slave and a devout believer in Marxist ideology, she and a group of white Mississippi lawyers risked their lives to plead McGee’s case. After years of court battles, McGee’s supporters flooded President Harry S. Truman and the U. S. Supreme Court with clemency pleas, and famous Americans—including William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, Paul Robeson, Norman Mailer, and Josephine Baker—spoke out on McGee’s behalf. Five years later, “Free Willie McGee” had become a rallying cry among civil-rights activists, progressives, leftists, and Communist Party members, who had succeeded in convincing millions of people, worldwide, that McGee had been framed, and that the real story involved a consensual love affair between him and Mrs. Hawkins—one that she’d instigated and secretly controlled. McGee was executed in 1951, and the mysteries surrounding his case live on in this provocative tale about justice in the deep South. Relying on exhaustive documentary research—court transcripts, contemporary newspaper reports, archived papers, letters, FBI documents, and other untapped sources—along with the recollections of family members on both sides, Alex Heard, a native of Mississippi, tells a moving and unforgettable story that evokes the bitter conflicts between black and white, north and south in America.
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