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Lessons from Willie McGee

This summer I read “The Eyes of Willie McGee,” by Alex Heard. It is easily one of the most compelling books I’ve ever picked up. It deals with a very dark topic: the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man in mid-1940s Mississippi, his repeated trials and appeals, and his ultimate execution. The storyline might seem familiar, for it was echoed in 1960’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. The main difference is a big one: with Heard’s book, there is not one bit of fiction. It wasn’t a neatly resolved story, either, and there are still too many loose ends to categorize.

The scope of the book is astonishing, as the usual suspects—the Klan, local lynch mobs, random unaffiliated racists—are joined by multinational Communist organizations, labor unions, New York journalists and attorneys, Faulkner, Einstein, an abdicating NAACP, and dozens of nonprogressive jurors. As John Grisham succinctly states in a blurb on the book jacket, the story is “sad and tragic.” There is not a happy ending for anyone; justice wasn’t done, but politics were.

The book’s value as a historical document is immense, as its central event illustrates the general condition of US attitudes and policies towards race at that time. Jim Crow laws were still in place, but waning amidst much violent resistance. The civil rights movement was in infancy, and we witness the unfortunate power struggles of various groups wanting to bear Mr. McGee’s likeness on their banner.

As I read, I felt great indignation for those involved in such a gross miscarriage of justice. I felt deeply rooted compassion and sorrow for those who were wronged. I also learned something very unexpected and extremely powerful: what happens when someone feels betrayed.

The betrayal of which I’m speaking was displayed by white citizens of Laurel, MS, as numerous nationwide groups, with a largely white membership, ‘interfered’ in the county’s and state’s legal systems.

This sense of betrayal begat strong reactions, most of them violent, as clandestinely organized assaults were carried out on the interlopers. Mr. McGee’s life was always in jeopardy, as he was housed in the county jail for years during his three appeals. To quell outbreaks, militia was brought in to guard the courthouse at various times. The list goes on, but what rang out above all of this was that the citizens of Laurel felt truly betrayed by their ‘own kind.’

I state this not as a justification, for there is no way to justify what was done. I’m simply observing the behavior that was presented. It was much like the murder of George Hanson in “Easy Rider,” as the decidedly square small-town lawyer was viewed as a traitor for joining up with hippie bikers Wyatt and Billy.

I received an epiphany of sorts as I read this book. That epiphany is this: that many vegans and animal rights activists, due to the intensity of their actions or statements, are triggering the same betrayal-based responses among more mainstream citizens.

The declaration that animals are the equals of humans–or even superiors, in some activist circles—is the same as the anti-Jim-Crow cries of equality between blacks and whites.

The civil rights movement had both violent and peaceful contingents. In the long run, the outcome was beneficial, as the country’s laws clearly protect all of us, equally. Bigotry still exists, racial hatred still exists, and certainly there are still miscarriages of justice. But we have come a long way legally.

We should not anticipate the same outcome for animal rights. I do not say this to be defeatist. It is simply a rational conclusion, for animals cannot participate in this struggle the same way humans can. Animal rights activists often claim to be speaking for those who have no voice—and it is this absence of a voice puts them at a distinct disadvantage. It was hard enough for hardcore racists to hear those who could speak, using the same language.

The animal rights movement might find its own Atticus Finch, one who can speak uber-eloquently in defense of his clients. But the opposition will be quick to point out that the clients did not in fact hire Mr. Finch, Esquire.

This makes it all the more important that those of us who wish for more fair treatment of animals purge all hostility from our own efforts. Our cause is noble, it is good, it is progressive, and it will benefit millions of lives, human included. But we will hinder our own efforts if we push so hard and violently that we trigger this very primitive and fundamental emotion.

Until animals develop the ability to speak in the myriad languages of humans, their cause is severely handicapped. Therefore, those of us who can speak ‘on their behalf’—which is monumentally presumptuous on our part—must be diligent to make our arguments well-reasoned and balanced, which will appeal to humans’ compassion and dignity, rather than attacking humans ad nauseam for their inhumanity. This latter approach will only produce more violent and committed resistance. By employing the former tact, we can possibly make some headway.

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