Michael Donald, the 19-year-old son of Beulah Mae Donald, was kidnapped, assaulted, and lynched by members of the United Klans of America on March 21, 1981, in Mobile, Alabama (an Alabama faction of the KKK). The United Klans of America was one of the country’s largest and most violent organizations at the time.
The violent lynching in 1981 was unlike any other lynching instance previously documented. What is the reason for this? Because Michael, the victim, had not been charged with a crime or suspected of violating racial etiquette when he was killed. Members of the Ku Klux Klan got rid of him because they were enraged at the way a local murder trial was handled.
Josephus Anderson, a Black man, was accused of assassinating a white police officer during an armed robbery in Birmingham, Alabama. The second trial of Anderson had been declared a mistrial in the days immediately up to Michael’s murder because the jury couldn’t agree on a conviction.
According to sociologists Stewart Emory Tolnay and E.M. Beck in their book A Festival of Violence, this meant that “a Black man might kill a white man with impunity as long as there were blacks on the jury…” Michael “was assassinated as retaliation against the Black community and to confirm the power of the Ku Klux Klan in south Alabama,” the two sociologists write.
When Klan members James Knowles and Henry Francis Hays went on the hunt for a Black man to kill in Mobile, Alabama, they wanted to send a message. Michael, 19, was kidnapped by Knowles and Hays while walking home on the night of March 21. He was beaten and strangled to death. They then “showed him out” during a gathering at Klan elder Bennie Hays’ residence before hanging him from a tree later that night.
Michael’s mother, Beulah Mae, was notified of her son’s terrible murder at 7 a.m. the next day. Beulah Mae, like Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son “so the world may know” what the Klan had done to him.
Knowing that her son’s death was racially motivated, she set out to find him justice. At the time, Mobile police had detained three guys who appeared to have had nothing to do with the lynching. They were let go without being charged. Beulah Mae coordinated local protests with Mobile’s Black community when she felt her son’s death was not being thoroughly investigated.
She was able to get Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders to pay attention to her son’s condition. The case quickly made national headlines, drawing the FBI’s attention. Hays and Knowles, members of the Ku Klux Klan, were captured in 1983. Knowles was the star witness in Hays’ trial, having confessed the murder to the FBI shortly after his detention. He was given a life sentence for infringing on Michael’s civil rights, while Hays was given the death penalty for murder.
But Beulah Mae’s story didn’t end there. She believed that, in addition to the killers of her son, the group that the killers belonged to should be dealt with. According to History, Beulah Mae filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the United Klans of America in 1984, claiming that the group and its members were responsible for the murder. According to one report, she brought a civil claim against the United Klans of America for more than $10 million.
In 1987, a jury granted the Donald family a $7 million verdict against the United Klans of America and several of its members after only four hours of deliberation. After the verdict, Beulah Mae told the Associated Press, “I’m delighted justice was served.” “Money has no meaning for me. It is not going to bring my child back. But I’m delighted they caught the criminals and prosecuted them.”
The Klan would eventually go bankrupt as a result of the judgment. According to reports, the Klan had difficulty compensating the Donald family. As a result, it granted Beulah Mae and her family the deed to its Tuscaloosa, Alabama headquarters, which was only worth $225,000. In 1987, Donald sold the building and used the proceeds to purchase her own home. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, Beulah Mae’s attorney, Michael A. Figures, tried to take the property and garnish the income of other Klan members. The civil trial evidence was also utilized to indict Bennie Hays and his son-in-law, according to the article.
Beulah Mae’s civil case effectively established a legal precedent that is now utilized to combat hate crimes perpetrated by violent white supremacist organizations. Despite the fact that she and her son are no longer alive, their legacies live on. Michael Donald Avenue, the street where Michael’s body was discovered, was renamed in his honor in 2006.