Mississippi Bus Station
Bella Abzug, 1920 - 1998
"I became involved in my first civil rights case [as chief counsel of appeals proceedings in 1950]. The man I defended—Willie McGee—was accused of raping a white woman, even though he and the woman had had a long-standing sexual relationship. That fact, of course, only made the crime all the more heinous to the Mississippi jury, and McGee was sentenced to death. Challenging the traditional practice of excluding blacks from the jury and arguing that Southern judges and juries reserved the death penalty for 'rape' as a cruel and inhuman punishment for blacks only, I managed to get the Supreme Court to stay the execution twice."
Yet the Supreme Court refused to rule on the case, and McGee's execution date approached once again. In the final few days, Abzug traveled to Jackson, Mississippi for a last minute clemency hearing. Local whites were incensed and had been threatening violence throughout the trials and appeals. When she arrived in town she found that no hotel would take her. Alone, and also pregnant, Abzug spent the night awake in the locked bathroom stall of a bus station to avoid the Ku Klux Klan.
The next day Abzug argued before the state Governor for six hours, but despite extensive publicity and protests organized by the Civil Rights Congress, McGee was executed in 1951.
- "I became involved in my first civil rights case..." quote from Bella Abzug, Bella! : Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington, Mel Ziegler, ed (New York : Saturday Review Press, 1972) 86.
- On the McGee trial and Abzug in Mississippi see Papers of the Civil Rights Congress: microfilm collection part 1, reels 10-11, Willie McGee clippings and fact sheets, Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict (New York: Knopf, 1977), Sarah Hart Brown, Standing Against Dragons: Three Southern Lawyers in an Era of Fear (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), Liz and Eve Abzug, Speeches, "Celebrating Bella," Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, New York, 13 March 1999 and Blanche Weisen Cook, "Bella Abzug," Jewish Women In America, vol. 1, eds. Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore (New York : Routledge, 1997) 7-8.