In 1981, MTV made its debut on cable television. IBM introduced the personal computer. The space shuttle Columbia launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
In the same year in Mobile, Ala., a 19-year-old man named Michael Donald, the seventh and last beloved child of Beulah Mae Donald, was abducted at gunpoint by Henry Hays and James Knowles, members of the United Klans of America’s local Klavern 900, and driven to a secluded wooded area near a garbage dump where he was killed. Hays and Knowles then tied Donald’s body to a tree on a vacant lot on Herndon Avenue, in what would be the first lynching since the 1960s.
Laurence Leamer’s “The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan,” recounts the arrest and criminal conviction of Hays, who was sentenced to death, as well as Knowles’ plea deal for life in prison in exchange for his testimony against Hays. The book’s primary focus, though, is the federal civil suit, Beulah Mae Donald, as Executor of the Estate of Michael Donald, Deceased v. United Klans of America, et al., and the $7 million verdict in favor of Donald, which caused financial ruin to the United Klans of America, the largest and most violent faction of the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s a chilling subject that makes the fictionalized courtroom scenes in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” read like a bedtime story.
“The Lynching” casts a wide net, covering nearly four decades of racial strife and civil rights activism in the South, including the integration of Alabama public schools, in particular, Autherine Lucy’s 1956 attempt to attend classes at the University of Alabama; the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair; the 1965 killing of 39-year-old freedom rider Viola Gregg Liuzzo; and the Selma marches.
Morris Dees, co-counsel for Donald in her suit against the Klan and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), features prominently in the book. To win the case, Dees had the monumental task of proving that the United Klans espoused a philosophy and dictated a pattern of violence, for which Donald’s killing was a natural consequence. Leamer deftly depicts Dees’ evolution from former segregationist sympathizer to civil rights champion. “He was moved by Reverend King’s speech, and Dees felt his lethargic unconcern for the events happening all around him seemed increasingly untenable.”
Leamer’s examination of George Wallace Jr., the “scrawny” judge turned white supremacist governor and presidential hopeful is comprehensive, as is his meticulous study of Robert Shelton, the once quiet foundry worker and World War II veteran who would become the United Klans’ Imperial Wizard, “the most powerful Klan leader in the second half of the 20th century.”
Leamer highlights several individual defendants of Donald v. United Klans, members of the United Klans’ local chapter Klavern 900, based in Theodore, Ala. They include Hays’ ruthless father, Great Titan Bennie Jack Hays, the highest-ranking officer of the United Klans in the southern half of Alabama, and Bennie Hays’ son-in-law, Klavern 900 president Frank Cox. Bennie Hays would suffer a heart attack during his criminal trial and would die before he could be re-tried. Cox would be convicted and receive life in prison for his role as an accomplice to Donald’s murder.
Few African Americans make significant contributions to the narrative of “The Lynching.” Given the depth with which Leamer addresses the political, racial and social-economic dynamics of southern Alabama, one wonders why. Early on, we are introduced to Alabama state senator Michael Figures, who saw Donald’s body hanging on Herndon Avenue, and who later served as co-counsel in Donald v. United Klans. We meet his brother, the “endlessly persistent” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Figures, who first lobbied the Justice Department and then pressured the FBI to re-open the investigation into the members of Klavern 900. But the Figures brothers all but disappear later in the book. Leamer barely mentions the role of the NAACP, one of the plaintiffs in Donald v. United Klans.
The jacket copy suggests “The Lynching” will connect racial violence of the past to present-day race relations, and there is certainly ample opportunity to do so. Take this observation of Governor Wallace: “Wallace had hooked into anger among working-class and lower-middle-class whites who thought the American Dream was no longer within reach … Wallace also had protesters come to his events and hold up signs and placards and boo and scream … His rallies always had an undertone of potential violence.”
The passage echoes recent events at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rallies, but the similarities go unacknowledged. (To be fair, Leamer’s manuscript deadline may have preceded the prevalence of violence at Trump’s rallies.)
“The Lynching” concludes with a curious tone of finality and redemption. “There are still all kinds of racist hate groups in America,” Leamer writes, “but for the most part, the large organizations whose leaders encourage their foot soldiers to commit acts of violence have been shut down or cowed because of the SPLC’s lawsuits.”
A quick online search yields dozens of active, recently updated Klan and Klan-affiliated organizations, including a website for what appears to be a fully operational United Klans of America. Moreover, systematic racial injustice toward African Americans, in the form of mass incarceration and the unarmed killings of African Americans by police officers, persists. An acknowledgment of these ongoing realities would have lent even more credibility to Leamer’s exhaustive research in “The Lynching.”
The book’s final section titled “Where Are They Now,” specifically the entry for Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III, does allude to the cyclical nature of racial progress and regress. While serving as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Sessions allegedly made racist statements in front of Thomas Figures and three other attorneys. Despite this, Sessions was elected to the United States Senate in 1996, and currently sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Today Sessions serves as a lead foreign policy advisor to Trump.