Michael Donald was a 19-year-old Black man in Mobile, Ala. who was the victim of a brutal hate crime in 1981. Donald’s death is largely regarded as the last known lynching in America. Through efforts by civil rights leaders and the FBI, four Ku Klux Klan members were tried were tried. The ringleader of the killing was eventually executed.
In Mobile, an explosive case involving a Black man, Josephus Anderson, was unfolding. Anderson was acquitted of killing a white police officer, which angered many local Klan members. Seeking revenge, a group of men from the United Klans Of America took to the Mobile streets to randomly select a victim.
The men, Henry Hays, 26 at time, and James Llewellyn “Tiger” Knowles, then 17, drove around and spotted Donald returning from a store after buying cigarettes for his sister. They kidnapped Donald, took him to some woods and savagely beat him. They then tied a rope around his neck to strangle him, then slit his throat before hanging him from a tree. Donald died on March 21, 1981.
Allegedly, the pair were led to carry out the crime by Hays’ father, Bernie Hays, the second-highest ranking member of the United Klans of Alabama. Mobile police told Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, that Donald died as a result of a drug deal gone bad but she didn’t believe their story. She enlisted the assistance of Rev. Jesse Jackson, who led a series of protests in Mobile.
After some time, the FBI became involved and found evidence linking Hays and Knowles to the crime. Two and a half years later, Hays and Knowles were arrested. Hays was placed on death row and executed in 1997.
Hays was the first white man executed for a “white-on-black” crime in the state since 1913. Knowles testified against Hays to avoid the death penalty, and was given a life sentence. A third accomplice, Benjamin Cox, was convicted in 1989 and given life in prison as well.
Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, brought a wrongful death suit against the United Klans of America on behalf of Donald’s mother in federal court in the Southern District of Alabama.
The $7 million lawsuit was settled, and it bankrupted the United Klans of America. Donald’s mother used the settlement to buy her first home. In 2006, Sam Jones, Mobile’s first Black mayor, named a street after Michael Donald in a ceremony.
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