Bella Abzug

Bella Abzug

Bella Savitzky (Abzug) was born in New York City on 24th July 1920. After attending local public schools she obtained a degree from the Columbia University Law School in 1945.

Admitted to the New York Bar in 1947, Abzug concentrated on trade union and civil rights cases. This included the Willie McGee case. McGee, a 36-year-old black truck driver from Laurel, Mississippi, was convicted of raping a white woman despite evidence that the couple had been having a relationship for four years. The trial lasted less than a day and the jury took under three minutes to reach a verdict and the judge sentenced McGee to be executed. Abzug argued that no white man had ever been condemned to death for rape in the deep South, while over the last forty years 51 blacks had been executed for this offence.

Despite a nationwide campaign led by the American Communist Party McGee was executed on 8th May 1951. It was claimed by James Cogley wrote in Commonweal: "The Communists vigorously espoused McGee's cause, but their support nowadays is rather a kiss of death." Mary Mostert, writing in The Nation agreed: "Willie McGee was convicted because he was black and supported by Communists, not on any conclusive evidence."

Abzug also represented a large number of left-wing activists who were persecuted by Joseph McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). During this period Abzug was described by McCarthy as one if the most subversive lawyers in the country.

A strong opponent of the Vietnam War, Abzug was an initiator of Women Strike for Peace Movement that was established in 1961.

A member of the Democratic Party, Abzug was elected to the 92nd Congress. She was also successful in the 93rd and 94th and served between January 1971 and January 1977. During this period she campaigned for the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. Army from Vietnam, a Freedom of Information Act, gay and lesbian civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and comprehensive child care.

Abzug was an unsuccessful candidate for nomination to the United States Senate in 1977. She was co-chair of the National Advisory Committee for Women (1978-79) and the co-founder of the Women's Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO). Bella Abzug died in New York City on 31st March 1998.

Primary Sources

(1) Jessica Mitford, wrote about the Willie McGee case in her autobiography A Fine Old Conflict (1977)

Rosalee McGee, a diminutive 28-year-old woman who looked much older, had never before been out of Mississippi. On the first lap of her plane journey from Jackson to New York, many hours in those pre-jet days, she had forgotten to bring the lunch that neighbours had packed for her, and arrived famished. Stewardesses had solicitously offered meals which she refused, having no idea they were free.

From her account of life in Laurel, and the genesis of the rape charge against her husband, one began to see the macabre contours of oppression in the deep South. If McGee were executed, she said, he would be the third man in her family to die violently at the hands of white Mississippi. "I saw my my nephew lynched by six white hoodlums, and my first cousin was put to death in the electric chair."

Mrs. Hawkins, the white accuser, had pursued McGee relentlessly for years, said Mrs. McGee. "People who don't know the South don't know what would have happened to Willie if he told her no. Down South, you tell a woman like that no, and she'll cry rape anyway. So what else could Willie do? That's why I never got angry at Willie."

Eventually, after years of acquiescence to Mrs. Hawkins, McGee did decide to break off the affair. It was at this point that she pressed the rape charge. According to her testimony at the trial, McGee had come into her bedroom in the middle of the night; she did not cry out, she said, for fear of waking her husband and baby who were sleeping in the next room.

(2) Jackson Daily News (10th May 1951)

The recent Willie McGee case was a striking illustration of the desperate tactics Communists use to gain ground for their cause. They spent at least $100,000 in defense of Willie McGee, a proven rapist, not because they cared anything whatever about the defendant, but they were boldly and impudently seeking to create disrespect for law and order among Negroes throughout the nation, and especially in Southern states. The Communists tell the Negro's plight in all the far corners of the earth. It is their greatest weapon against the Marshall Plan and places us in a false light, especially to the yellow and black races.

(3) Time Magazine (14th May 1951)

To Communists all over the world, the case of Willie McGee had become surefire propaganda, good for whipping up racial tension at home and giving U.S. justice a black eye abroad. Stirred up by the Communist leadership. Communist-liners and manifesto-signers in England, France, China and Russia demanded that Willie be freed. Not only Communists took up the cry. In New York, Albert Einstein signed a newspaper ad protesting a miscarriage of justice. Mrs McGee, a captive of the Communists, addressed party rallies.

(4) Bella Abzug, Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972)

There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. But whatever I am - and this ought to be made very clear at the outset - I am a very serious woman.