Last updated: 1 june, 2010 - 19:23 GMT

Community and Society

The Travelling Electric Chair

Willie McGee

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In 1945, an all-white jury in America took two and a half minutes to find a black man named Willie McGee guilty of raping a white woman.

Over the next six years, the case wound through three trials, and sparked international protests and appeals from William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and even Albert Einstein.

Willie McGee was defended by a young Bella Abzug: attorney, activist, and eventually the first Jewish woman in the United States Congress. But on the night of 7 May 1951, he was put to death in Mississippi’s travelling electric chair – the only one of its kind in the US.

A local radio station broadcast his execution live from the steps of the courthouse. A newly discovered recording of that newscast provides a chilling glimpse into a lost episode of history.

Before his trial, his wife fled to Las Vegas with their four children. A generation on, Bridgette McGee-Robinson, Willie’s granddaughter, grew up not knowing why her family left the south. It was only by accident, while sorting through some papers under her mother's bed, that Bridgette found old news clippings of the Willie McGee case.

In this documentary, Bridgette retraces the history of her grandfather's trial and execution, uncovering the truth behind an episode shrouded in mystery.

She also explores how the incident continues to shape the memories of local residents and the families of those involved in the case; the stories they tell – and don't tell.

Produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark for click Radio Diaries.

First broadcast on click NPR and aired on BBC World Service on 2 June 2010.

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