Murder of Michael Donald
The murder of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama in 1981 was the last recorded lynching in the United States. Several Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members beat and killed Michael Donald, a young African-American man, and hanged his body from a tree. One perpetrator, Henry Hays, was sentenced to death and executed in 1997, while another, James Knowles, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty and testifying against Hays. A third man was convicted as an accomplice, and a fourth indicted but he died before his case could be completed at trial.
The execution of Hays was the first in Alabama since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. It was the only execution of a KKK member during the 20th century for the murder of an African American. Donald's mother brought a civil suit for wrongful death against the United Klans of America (UKA), to which the attackers belonged. In 1987 a jury awarded her damages of $7 million, which bankrupted the organization. This set a precedent for civil legal action for damages against other racist groups.
Michael Donald (July 24, 1961 – March 21, 1981) was born in Mobile, Alabama, the son of Beulah Mae (Greggory) Donald and David Donald, and was the youngest of six children. He grew up in a city and state influenced by the passage in the mid-1960s of federal civil rights legislation that ended legal segregation and provided for federal oversight and enforcement of voting rights. African Americans could again participate in politics in the South; their ability to register to vote also meant that they were selected for juries. Donald attended local schools while growing up. In 1981 he was studying at a technical college, while working at the local newspaper.
In 1981, Josephus Anderson, an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman in Birmingham, Alabama while committing a robbery (along with two other charges of assaulting officers), was tried in Mobile, where the case had been moved in a change of venue. There were indications that the jury was struggling to reach a verdict.
At a meeting in Mobile before Anderson's verdict was announced, members of Unit 900 of the United Klans of America complained that the jury had not convicted Anderson because it had African-American members. Bennie Jack Hays, the second-highest-ranking official in the United Klans in Alabama, reportedly 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." On Friday, a mistrial was declared on all four counts. The prosecutor declared his intention to retry the case. (Anderson was convicted of murder in 1985 after two more mistrials on that count; in his trial following this one in 1981, he was convicted on the assault and robbery charges).
The same night as the first mistrial was declared, Klan members burned a three-foot cross on the Mobile County courthouse lawn. After a meeting, Bennie Hays' son, Henry Hays (age 26), and James Llewellyn "Tiger" Knowles (age 17), armed with a gun and rope, drove around Mobile looking for a black person to attack.
At random, they spotted Michael Donald walking home after buying his sister a pack of cigarettes. They kidnapped him, drove out to another county and 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 in a mixed neighborhood in Mobile. It was on Herndon Street, across from a house owned by Klan leader Bennie Jack Hays.
Investigation and criminal proceedings
While the local police chief suspected the Klan, officers first took into custody three suspects on possible involvement with a drug deal gone wrong; Donald's mother insisted that her son had not been involved in drugs. The police released the suspects after investigation. Beulah Mae Donald contacted national civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, who organized a protest march in the city and demanded answers from the police.
The FBI investigated and was ready to close its investigation, but Thomas Figures, the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Mobile, asked the Dept. of Justice to authorize a second investigation. He worked closely with FBI agent James Bodman. His brother Michael Figures, a state senator and civil rights activist, served as an attorney to Beulah Mae Donald and also encouraged the investigation. Two and a half years later in 1983, Henry Hays and James Knowles were arrested. Knowles confessed to Bodman in 1983, and additional evidence was revealed during the civil trial initiated by Donald's mother Beulah Mae Donald in 1984. As a result, in 1988 Benjamin Franklin Cox, Jr., a truckdriver, was indicted as an accomplice in the criminal case. Henry's father Bennie Hays was also indicted in Donald's murder.
Henry Francis Hays (November 10, 1954 – June 6, 1997) was convicted and sentenced to death. He was incarcerated in the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama, while on death row. 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 is the only known KKK member to have been executed in the 20th century for the murder of an African American.
James Llewellyn "Tiger" Knowles was also convicted of murder; by the end of the trial, he was 21 years of age. U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand sentenced him to life in prison. He avoided the death penalty by testifying against Hays at trial. Knowles had earlier testified that the slaying was done "to show Klan strength in Alabama."
On May 18, 1989, Benjamin Franklin Cox, Jr., a truck driver from Mobile, was convicted in state 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.
The elder Hays was indicted for inciting the murder and tried some years later. His case ended in a mistrial when he collapsed in court. Judge Zoghby said that because of the illness of the elder Hays, then 71, he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. Hays' lawyer was willing to go forward with proceedings. Hays died of a heart attack before he could be retried.
Acting at the request of Beulah Mae Donald, Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, brought a wrongful death suit in 1984 against the United Klans of America in federal court in the Southern District of Alabama. The civil trial brought out evidence that enabled the criminal indictment and conviction of Cox as an accomplice, and of Bennie Jack Hays for inciting the murder.
The original 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. In 1987 the Klan was found civilly liable by an all-white jury and sentenced to damages of $7 million in the wrongful-death verdict in the case. The settlement bankrupted the United Klans of America. The suit became a precedent for civil legal action against other racist groups in the United States.
The Donald family was given the deed to the UKA meeting hall in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, the chapter's only sizeable asset, as part of the settlement. Beulah Mae Donald used some of the settlement money to buy her first house. She died the following year on September 17, 1988.
In 2006, Mobile commemorated Michael Donald by renaming Herndon Avenue, where the murderers had hanged Donald's body, in his honor. Mobile's first black mayor, Sam Jones, presided over a small gathering of Donald's family and local leaders at the commemoration.
Donald's murder has been the subject of several works of fiction and nonfiction. The Texan political commentator Molly Ivins told the story of the Donald family in her essay, "Beulah Mae Donald," which appeared in her 1991 anthology, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?. Ravi Howard wrote a novel, Like Trees, Walking (2007), based on the murder. He won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence in 2008 for it. Laurence Leamer wrote a book, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan (2016), chronicling the case.
In film and television, the 1991 film Line of Fire (also called Blind Hate) depicts the civil court case related to the murder. Ted Koppel created "The Last Lynching", a Discovery Channel television program about US civil rights history that aired in October 2008. It centered on the murder of Michael Donald, the criminal prosecution of his killers, and the civil suit against the UKA. The National Geographic's Inside American Terror series explored Donald's murder in a 2008 episode about the KKK.
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