Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Gilbert King's "The Execution of Willie Francis"

Gilbert King is the author of Woman, Child For Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century, which was selected by the Detroit Free Press as one of its ten notable books of 2004. In addition, King has contributed articles to numerous newspapers and magazines, including Ring Magazine, Playboy, and the San Diego Union.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South, and reported the following:
On page 99 of my book, we learn the background of Father Maurice Rousseve, the Creole priest in St. Martinville, Louisiana who counsels seventeen-year-old African-American Willie Francis in the months leading up to, and, surprisingly, just after Willie's botched execution at the hands of two drunken executioners in 1946. In some ways, Father Rousseve's story forms the heart of my book, as Rousseve was born and raised in the Seventh Ward--the quintessential Creole section of New Orleans, where his parents encouraged music, religion and education above all else. His parents were very successful in this indoctrination as Maurice and his brothers and sisters became writers, professors, architects, teachers and nuns, respectively.

In contrast to the opportunities the Rousseves enjoyed while living in New Orleans, the blacks of rural St. Martinville were stifled and forced into a life of plantation work. There were no schools for blacks beyond sixth grade, and Willie Francis only made it as far as third. So when Father Rousseve arrives in St. Martinville to run the Catholic church for blacks in town, he is continually frustrated that the opportunities for blacks are severely restricted by whites. Yet, ironically, Rousseve chooses a white priest as his assistant.

Father Rousseve strongly believed that Willie Francis was purposely tortured in the chair by the drunken executioners, who lowered the voltage so that Willie would not lose consciousness during his electrocution. He was also convinced, as were many in town, both black and white, that a Cajun deputy sheriff named August Fuselier, whose gun was found at the scene of the murder Willie was convicted of, was responsible for the death of Andrew Thomas, the popular Cajun pharmacist in town. At the same time, Rousseve has a great deal of respect for Bertrand DeBlanc, the young Cajun lawyer who comes to Willie's legal aid following the botched execution.

Page 99 of my book captures the complexity of heritage and race in 1940s Louisiana, which is so important to this story. So I'd say Ford's statement holds up pretty well in this case.
Read an excerpt from The Execution of Willie Francis, and learn more about the book and author at Gilbert King's website.

--Marshal Zeringue