The Vanguard

30 Years Later: The legacy of Michael Donald and the last lynching in the United States

Lee Hedgepeth, Contributing Writer

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Three decades ago this month, in the summer of 1985, Beulah Mae Donald – a Mobile woman The New York Times would later proclaim “The Woman Who Beat the Klan” – launched a legal crusade that would change lives forever.

Beulah Mae Donald had not asked to be in the national spotlight, but she was forced there on March 21, 1981 when her son became the last victim of a lynching in the United States, right here in Mobile.

Following the lynching, with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Donald filed a pathmarking lawsuit against the United Klans of America, whose members were convicted of the act of modern day racial terrorism.

That civil suit, which released new details of the hate crime, was the first of its kind, as it was aimed at holding the entire Klan organization – not just Donald’s murderers – liable for the actions of its members it had inflamed, through a documentation of the extensive, excruciating evidence of the crime and its context.

The lawsuit not only helped Mrs. Donald in her quest for closure, it also preserved for the future a compelling record of a not-so-distant history.

Beulah Mae’s son, Michael Donald, was an average teenage.. He was a recent Murphy High School graduate, and was working in the mailroom of the Mobile Press-Register part-time while he trained to be a brick mason.

Michael liked basketball, and for him March meant March Madness: the annual NCAA tournament.

That day, Michael Donald had been watching UAB play Kentucky in a game which they went on to win 69-62, though the nineteen year old would never know that final score.

During a break in play, Michael walked to a nearby convenience store for a family member, heading from his home in Mobile down Davis Avenue – the main thoroughfare through the predominantly African-American part of town.

Unbeknownst to Michael Donald, also coming up Davis Avenue were two members of the United Klans of America – Henry Hays and “Tiger” Knowles.

According to the lawsuit Mrs. Donald and the SPLC filed, two days before, at a meeting of United Klans’ local chapter on Gunn Road in Theodore, Hays’ father Benny Jack – one of the group’s leaders – led a meeting where the group prepared for the outcome of a trial that had been moved to Mobile in which a black man had been accused of murdering a Birmingham Police Officer.

“If a black man can get away with killing a white man,” Benny Jack Hays proposed to his Theodore audience, according to later testimony, “we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.”

That week’s edition of the Klan’s newsletter, “The Fiery Cross,”made the picture even clearer. Its front page is a cartoon: a white man on the left saying “It’s terrible the way blacks are being treated! All whites should work to give the blacks what they deserve.”

Across the page, the caricature of an African-American hangs from a noose, lifeless.

SPLC co-founder Morris Dees would use this image in trial, putting it side by side with the coroner’s photo of Donald, noose still around his neck.

Michael Donald had almost undoubtedly not seen that cartoon, but Hays and Knowles had, and Donald was about to experience the grappling, sadistic violence was all too common to blacks in the South.

As Donald walked up Davis Avenue that evening, Hays and Knowles pulled up beside him, and asked how to get to Powers’ Lounge, a popular bar in downtown Mobile.

Hays and Knowles had just left Benny Jack Hay’s house on Herndon Avenue, a relatively mixed neighborhood in Mobile, with a noose and a gun, after finding out the black defendant had not been convicted.

Dr. Frye Gaillard, USA’s writer-in-residence, wrote about the lynching in his book Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail, and described what happened next.

“They had just decided to kill some black person at random. They made Michael Donald get into their vehicle and drove across the bay,” Gaillard said.

“They’d apparently been making a hangman’s noose as they drove across the bridge, and they actually strangled him with that and then slit his throat.”

After Donald was unconscious and bleeding to death, the pair drove back to Mobile, showing off the body to a fellow Klansman before hanging his corpse from a camphor tree on Herndon Avenue, between Spring Hill Avenue and Old Shell Road, across the street from the Hays’ home.

When the news broke, the Donald family, the local African-American community and much of Mobile was horrified.

The local chapter of the NAACP was immediately notified, and its president was allowed on the crime scene, which is how Robert Walker, a 77 year old Mobile native and longtime member of the African-American activist group found out about the lynching.

“[The NAACP president] called me Saturday morning because he was down there on Herndon Avenue, and he saw him suspended from the tree,” Walker said.

The Mobile Police Department conducted an investigation at the time, but no charges were brought until years later.

“I was interviewed by the detective because the rope that was found was from a boat I had been on,” Walker said.

But MPD’s leads never actually lead them anywhere, Walker explained, saying he believes that wasn’t accidental, either.

“It was a cover up. They tried to say the young man was involved in drugs at first,” Walker said.

One of the reasons he believes police were reticent was that Mobile wasn’t ready to accept the existence of what.Gaillard termed a “latter-day lynching.”

“As horrifying as it was,” Gaillard said, “it was a wake-up call for Mobile.”

Walker confirmed this, saying that white Mobilians didn’t even want to call the crime a lynching.

“Some of the police department said it wasn’t a lynching because they might’ve killed him before they suspended him in the tree,” he explained, saying that just wasn’t the case.

“If no one pronounced him dead,” Walker said, “it was a lynching. Really, dead or not.”

After the lynching, Mobile’s politics became more progressive for years after, likely as a direct reaction.

All of the evidence outlined in Beulah Mae Donald’s lawsuit payed off in 1987 when after a jury deliberated only a few hours, it ordered the United Klans of America – the same group that had killed the three little girls in the 1960s Birmingham church bombing – to pay the black Mobilian $7,000,000, an amount it did not have.

Instead, it was forced to fork over its Tuscaloosa headquarters, valued at about $200,000, to the Donald family.

Beulah Mae Donald sold the building, and bought the first house she had ever owned. She lived there, in the house that hate built, until she passed just about a year later. One of Michael Donald’s sisters still lives in Mobile

Herndon Avenue, were his body was strung up for display, was renamed Michael Donald Avenue in 2006 by Mobile’s first black mayor, Sam Jones.

The SPLC, who brought the suit for Donald, still uses the same legal argument they used first in this case to curb hate crime groups nationwide, including other Klan organizations.

Morris Dees, who still considers the case one of his most important, says that fact is Michael Donald’s lasting effect – the house that he built – that his death, while tragic, will continue to be a driving force in the struggle against hatred and bigotry long into the future.

“That is the legacy of Michael Donald,” Dees said.

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30 Years Later: The legacy of Michael Donald and the last lynching in the United States