In 1981, 19-year-old Michael Donald’s body was found dangling from a tree in Mobile, Alabama. The murder, carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan, is sometimes referred to as the last documented lynching in America.
On March 21, 1981, Donald was killed by Henry Hays and James Knowles, young KKK members incensed over the failure of a Mobile jury to convict an African American man charged with the murder of a white policeman.
Hays’ father, Bennie Jack Hays, second-highest-ranking official in the United Klans in Alabama at the time, was furious over the failed conviction and told the men “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.”
Spurred those words, Hays and Knowles kidnapped Donald, beat him, slit his throat and then hung his body from a tree in a Mobile neighborhood.
Police initially claimed Donald’s death was over a drug deal gone bad, despite insistence from his mother, Beulah Mae Donald, that it wasn’t true. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson came to Mobile to lead protests; the FBI took over the investigation. Knowles later confessed to the murder, pleaded guilty and testified against Hays. Hays was sentenced to death and his 1997 execution in Alabama’s electric chair was the first in the state since 1913 for a white-on-black crime.
A third defendant, Benjamin Franklin Cox Jr., of Mobile, was convicted of being an accomplice and sentenced to life in prison. The elder Hays, charged as an accomplice for allegedly ordering the lynching, had his first trial end in a mistrial, and died before a second trial started.
The criminal convictions weren’t the end, however.
With the help of Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mrs. Donald filed a civil suit against the local KKK and the United Klans of America. An all-white Mobile jury awarded her $7 million, forcing the bankrupted KKK to turn over the deed to its $225,000 national headquarters in Tuscaloosa.