For the second time this year, National Public Radio (NPR) will air another segment of the nationally broadcast program “All Things Considered” using materials from The University of Southern Mississippi Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage archives.
Produced by the NPR series “Radio Diaries” and narrated by Bridgette McGee-Robinson, “Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair” follows a granddaughter's search for the truth amid a remarkable story of race, politics and justice in post-war America.
For the past year, McGee-Robinson has worked with “Radio Diaries” to unearth everything she could about the life – and death – of her grandfather, Willie McGee. The documentary will be broadcast as a format-breaking (23-minute) special at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, May 7. “Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair” traces Bridgette’s journey through Mississippi as she investigates a forgotten chapter of Civil Rights history, and tries to uncover the truth behind a case that has been called a real-life “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Southern Miss provided “Radio Diaries” with a digital copy of a recording of the execution of McGee-Robinson’s grandfather in Mississippi and an extensive interview with one of McGee’s attorneys.
“We help keep Mississippi’s common historical memory by preserving the documents, printed letters, historical manuscripts and oral histories of our state’s history,” said Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes, director of the Southern Miss center. “We supply oral histories worldwide, because Mississippi is of interest internationally.”
“We’re so grateful for his help and for USM allowing us to use the tape in the broadcast,” said Samara Freemark, assistant producer of ‘Radio Diaries.’ “The most important thing we used from USM is a recording of McGee's execution in 1951. It's held in the USM Oral History Archives. It's an incredibly compelling recording, and we feel that it really deserves to be heard by a national audience. The documentary would not exist without that tape.”
“Growing up, I didn‘t know anything about my grandfather,” McGee-Robinson said. “My family never talked about him.” It was only by accident, while sorting through some papers under her mother's bed, that McGee-Robinson found a faded photograph and some old news clippings about a Mississippi man executed in 1951. “I asked my mother what it was,” McGee-Robinson said. “She just shook her head and said, ‘you wouldn’t understand.’”
In 1945, Willie McGee, a young black man, was accused of raping a white housewife in Laurel, Miss. The all-white jury took less than three minutes to find him guilty, and McGee was sentenced to death.
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 a lesser-known civil rights activist by the name of Albert Einstein. 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 May 7, 1951, McGee was put to death in Mississippi’s traveling electric chair.
A local radio station broadcast McGee’s 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. As part of the documentary “Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair,” this recording will be aired for the first time since 1951.
“The case is historically important, because it really highlighted the way in which Jim Crow and segregation perverted the Mississippi criminal justice system,” said Kyriakoudes. “Because the McGee case attracted national and international attention, it helped the rest of the country understand what segregation meant to the people who were suffering under it.”
For more information on the “Radio Diaries” special, contact Samara Freemark at
or visit www.radiodiaries.org. For more information on the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, contact Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes at 601.266.5622
Bridgette McGee-Robinson holds a photo of her grandfather, Willie McGee. (Submitted photo)
Willie McGee is shown during his incarceration in Mississippi. (Submitted photo)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.