Michael Donald

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Michael Donald (July 24, 1961 – March 21, 1981) was a young African-American man who was lynched in 1981 by two Ku Klux Klan members in Mobile, Alabama. The murder is sometimes referred to as the last recorded lynching in the United States.[1][2]


In 1981, Josephus Anderson, an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman, was tried in Mobile, Alabama. The jury could not reach a verdict and it ended in mistrial. Members of the United Klans of America were angered, believing that the jury failed to convict because some of its members were African Americans.

At a meeting within the group held after the mistrial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest-ranking official in the United Klans in Alabama, said: "If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man."[3][4][5]

An inflammatory cartoon from the UKA's The Fiery Cross that was used as evidence in the civil trial resulting from Michael Donald's murder.

That same night other Klan members burnt a three-foot cross on the Mobile County courthouse lawn. Bennie Hays' son, Henry Hays (age 26), and James Llewellyn "Tiger" Knowles (age 17) drove around Mobile looking for a victim.[6][7] At random, they spotted Michael Donald walking home after buying his sister a pack of cigarettes. They kidnapped him, drove out to a secluded area in the woods, attacked him and beat him with a tree limb. They wrapped a rope around his neck, and pulled on it to strangle him, before slitting his throat and hanging him from a tree across the street from Hays' house.[6]

Local police initially said that Donald had been killed as part of a drug deal gone wrong, despite his mother's insistence that he had not been involved in drugs. Beulah Mae Donald contacted national civil rights activist Jesse Jackson,[5] who organized a protest march in the city and demanded answers from the police.[3]

The FBI became involved,[5] partly at the urging of Michael and Thomas Figures, local activists. Two and a half years later, Henry Hays and James Knowles were arrested. Bennie Hays was also indicted in Donald's murder but died before his trial began.

Henry Hays was convicted and sentenced to death. He was incarcerated in the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama, while on death row.[8] He was executed in the electric chair on June 6, 1997. The Associated Press reported that Hays was Alabama's first execution since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. Hays was the only known KKK member to be executed for the murder of an African American during the 20th century.[6]

James Llewellyn Knowles was also convicted of murder and by the end of the trial was 21 years of age. U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand sentenced him to a life sentence.[9] He avoided the death penalty by testifying against Hays at trial.[6] Knowles had earlier testified that the slaying was done "to show Klan strength in Alabama."[9]

On May 18, 1989, Benjamin Franklin Cox, Jr., a truck driver from Mobile, was convicted in a federal court for being an accomplice in the Donald killing. Mobile County Circuit Court judge Michael Zoghby sentenced the then-28-year old Cox to life in prison for his part in the Donald murder.[10]

The elder Hays was tried some years later, but his case ended in a mistrial.[6] Zoghby said that because of the illness of the elder Hays, then 71, he had no choice but to declare a mistrial, even though Hays's lawyer was willing to go forward with proceedings.[11] Hays died of a heart attack before he could be retried.[6]


Michael Donald Avenue

Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, brought a wrongful death suit against the United Klans of America on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald in federal court in the Southern District of Alabama.[12] The official court transcript shows that the original concept, as charged in the complaint, was considered too vague to hold up, but Judge Alex T. Howard Jr. helped refine the legal theory of "agency," which held the Klan accountable for the acts of its members. This prevented the case from being dismissed before it could go to the jury.[13] The Klan was sentenced to damages of $7 million in the wrongful-death verdict in the case.[12] The settlement bankrupted the United Klans of America.

The Donald family was given the deed to the UKA meeting hall in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama as part of the settlement.[12] Beulah Mae Donald used some of the money to buy her first house. [12] She died on September 17, 1988.[14] The incident served as a precedent for suits against other racist groups in the United States.

In 2006, Mobile renamed Herndon Avenue as Michael Donald Avenue. Mobile's first black mayor, Sam Jones, presided over a small gathering of Michael Donald's family and local leaders at the commemoration.[5]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • Donald's story inspired a novel Like Trees, Walking (2007) by Ravi Howard.[15]


  1. ^ "The 'Last Lynching': How Far Have We Come?". NPR (National Public Radio). October 13, 2008. Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  2. ^ Daniel M. Gold (October 12, 2008). "In the Bad Old Days, Not So Very Long Ago". The New York Times. Retrieved July 24, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Michael Donald
  4. ^ Kornbluth, Jesse (1 November 1987). "The Woman Who Beat The Klan". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 January 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d Kornbluth, Jesse (12 November 2014). "They Killed Her Son. So Michael Donald’s Mother Went After the Klan.". The Good Men Project. Retrieved 4 January 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Smith, Gita M. "Alabama case shows how father's sins were visited on son; Whites execution for killing black didn't end inherited racism". Atlanta Journal-Constitution (newspaper). p. 4A. 
  7. ^ "Suit Filed Against KKK In Death Of Black Youth." Jet. Johnson Publishing Company, July 9, 1984. Vol. 66, No. 18. ISSN 0021-5996. 39. Retrieved from Google Books on March 3, 2011.
  8. ^ "Alabama pays Ohio for holding Klansman." Associated Press at The Tuscaloosa News. September 25, 1994. 8B. Retrieved from Google News (12 of 132) on March 3, 2011. "His son, Henry Hays, was sentenced to death for the Donald murder. He awaits an execution date at Holman Prison."
  9. ^ a b "Klansman sentenced for killing black man." Gainesville Sun. Friday April 12, 1985. 6A. Retrieved from Google News (96 of 140) on March 3, 2011.
  10. ^ "Ex-Klansman sentenced to life in prison for murder." Associated Press at the Observer-Reporter. Saturday June 24, 1989. B-3. Retrieved from Google News (13 of 109) on March 3, 2011.
  11. ^ "Mistrial for Former Klansmen." Associated Press at the Los Angeles Times. February 6, 1988. Retrieved on March 3, 2011.
  12. ^ a b c d "Donald v. United Klans of America". Southern Poverty Law Center. 1988. Retrieved 2007-09-18. 
  13. ^ "Alex Howard, former federal judge, dies in Mobile at 86". Press-Register. February 10, 2011. Retrieved 2012-06-24. 
  14. ^ "Beulah Mae Donald; Sued Klan, Won". Los Angeles Times. 20 September 1988. Retrieved 4 January 2015. 
  15. ^ "Novelist Ravi Howard on 'Like Trees, Walking'". NPR. 7 March 2007. Retrieved 5 January 2015. 
  16. ^ "Michael Donald clip on KKK: Inside American Terror". National Geographic. 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-18. 

External links[edit]