On March 21, 1981, in Mobile, Alabama, Michael Donald, the 19-year-old son of Beulah Mae Donald, was kidnapped, beaten, and lynched by members of the United Klans of America (an Alabama faction of the KKK). The United Klans of America was then one of the largest and most violent groups in the country.
The 1981 brutal lynching was different from other lynching cases that had been recorded. Why? Because the victim, Michael, had not been accused of committing a crime or “thought to have breached racial etiquette” when he was killed. Klan members got rid of him just because they were very angry about how a local murder trial was being handled. Josephus Anderson, a Black man, had been accused of killing a white police officer during an armed robbery in nearby Birmingham. In the days leading up to Michael’s murder, the second trial of Anderson had been declared a mistrial when the jury could not reach a verdict.
For the Klansmen, this meant that “a Black man could kill a white man with impunity so long as there were blacks on the jury…” sociologists Stewart Emory Tolnay and E.M. Beck explain in their book A Festival of Violence. The two sociologists write that Michael “was killed as a reprisal against the Black community and to confirm the power of the Ku Klux Klan in south Alabama.”
That’s what Klan members James Knowles and Henry Francis Hays sought to communicate when they went roaming Mobile, Alabama in search of a Black man to kill. 19-year-old Michael was walking home on the night of March 21 when he was kidnapped by Knowles and Hays. They beat him and strangled him to death. They then “showed him off” at a party at the house of Klan elder Bennie Hays before hanging his body from a tree that night.
By 7 am the following day, Michael’s mother Beulah Mae had been informed of her son’s tragic murder. Like Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, Beulah Mae insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son “so the world could know” what the Klan did to him.
And knowing that her son’s murder was racially motivated, she sought out to seek justice for him. The police in Mobile had at the time taken into custody three men who apparently had nothing to do with the lynching. They were released without charges. As Beulah Mae realized that her son’s murder was not being properly investigated, she organized local rallies with Mobile’s Black community. She was able to draw the attention of Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders to her son’s case. Soon, the case made national headlines, grabbing the attention of the FBI. In 1983, Klan members Hays and Knowles were arrested. Knowles, who confessed the crime to the FBI immediately after his arrest, was the star witness in Hays’ trial. He was sentenced to life in prison for violating Michael’s civil rights while Hays was sentenced to death for murder.
But that wasn’t all for Beulah Mae. She believed that apart from her son’s killers being punished, the organization the killers belonged to should also be dealt with. Thus, in 1984, Beulah Mae filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the United Klans of America, seeking to hold the organization and its members liable for the murder, History reported. According to one account, she filed a more than $10 million civil suit against the United Klans of America.
In 1987, a jury, after just four hours of deliberation, awarded the Donald family a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America and many of its members. “I’m glad justice was done,” Beulah Mae told the Associated Press after the verdict. “Money don’t mean a thing to me. It won’t bring my child back. But I’m glad they caught the guilty and brought them to court.”
The judgment would eventually bankrupt the Klan. Reports said the Klan found it difficult paying the Donald family. So, it gave Beulah Mae and her family the deed to its headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was worth only $225,000. Donald sold the building and used the money to buy her first home in 1987. What’s more, Beulah Mae’s attorney, Michael A. Figures, moved to seize the property and garnish the wages of some members of the Klan, the New York Times reported. The report added that evidence from the civil trial was also used to indict Bennie Hays and his son-in-law.
In effect, Beulah Mae’s civil lawsuit set a legal precedent that is used to fight hate crimes by violent white supremacist organizations. And though she and her son are no more, their legacies remain. In 2006, Herndon Avenue, the street where Michael’s body was found, was renamed Michael Donald Avenue in his honor.