The crime was shocking for any era, especially the Deep South of 1981. Walking home alone, 19-year-old Michael Donald was snatched from the streets of Mobile, Alabama, by two young members of Klavern 900 of the United Klans of America. They were hunting for a random black victim.
Enraged that a largely black jury had failed to reach a verdict in the trial of a black man accused of murdering a white man police officer, Henry Hays and James “Tiger” Knowles beat Donald to death, then cut his throat. Using a 13-knot hangmanʼs noose laden with the specific symbolic terror of yesteryear, the young Klansmen left Donaldʼs corpse tied to a camphor tree in the middle of a racially mixed neighborhood.
The lynching was the first anywhere in more than a quarter-century. As veteran nonfiction writer Laurence Leamer details in his flawed but engaging 15th book, that instead of catalyzing a Ku Klux Klan revival, the Donald lynching would lead to the groupʼs effective demise just six years later after a landmark lawsuit brought on behalf of Donaldʼs mother by swashbuckling civil rights attorney Morris Dees.
Veteran author of bestselling biographies and popular histories of political families and entertainers — including three titles focusing on the Kennedy dynasty and a smash hit with 1989ʼs King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson — Leamer has plenty of excellent material with which to work here. Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, provided Leamer extensive access to archival sources, and the author landed interviews with a handful of the surviving Klansmen or their immediate surviving relatives.
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Local police, many of them members of (or sympathetic to) the Klan and the old ways of the segregated South, conducted a laughably inept initial investigation. The local prosecutor, dogged by his own personal demons, didnʼt make much headway.
Eventually, outsiders from the FBI broke the case open. Knowles flipped, agreeing to testify against Hays, and eventually other Klansmen, in return for a lengthy sentence that spared his life. Hays was convicted of murder — the first time in almost a century that an Alabama jury had found a white man guilty of killing a black man — and sentenced to death.
The murder, arrest and criminal trial consumes the first third of the tale, and the landmark civil suit covers the final third. The story loses considerable momentum in the expository middle segment. Leamer spills too much ink on the intersecting histories of three brash white Alabamians: Dees, the civil rights crusader; Robert Shelton, the Imperial Dragon Wizard and titular leader of the United Klans of America; and George C. Wallace, the notorious race-baiting governor and three-time presidential aspirant.
In Leamerʼs retelling, the final courtroom battle feels a bit more “inevitableʼʼ than the “epicʼʼ billing in the subtitle. While Dees attempted to stretch the reach of civil conspiracy laws to unprecedented new bounds — arguing that Shelton and other Klan leaders encouraged, assisted and endorsed the lynching — heʼs not exactly facing the brightest legal minds on the other side of the courtroom.
With the exception of Shelton, all of the other defendants — especially Haysʼ father, Bennie, a raging bigot and familial bully straight out of Central Casting — were broke, poorly educated and ill-equipped to provide a robust defense for themselves.
With some deft pretrial maneuvering, Dees outfoxed Shelton and his capable attorney, foreclosing many of their best options by the time they entered the courtroom.
The $7 million judgment, rendered by an all-white jury, effectively ended the Klan. Donaldʼs stoic mother eventually was granted title to a Klan headquarters building near Tuscaloosa that netted a little more than $50,000, but it was more than enough to buy the only home she would ever own. Mobile prosecutors, armed with new evidence and witness testimony from the civil case, convicted other accomplices to the Donald murder.
Leamer is clearly enamored with the colorful, egomaniacal Dees, but to the authorʼs considerable credit, he cuts his protagonist no slack for his personal peccadilloes, infidelities and shameless self-promotion. At one point, Deesʼ worn-down, skeptical colleagues, many of them brilliant legal scholars and practitioners in their own right, describe him as a martinet who had lost sight of the SPLCʼs core mission.
There are many fine nonfiction titles that ably re-create high-stakes criminal trials or complicated civil suits at important moments in history. Many of the best — such as Gilbert Kingʼs Pulitzer-winning re-creation of Jim Crow racial injustice in 1949 Central Florida, Devil in the Grove or Jonathan Harrʼs painstaking tale of environmental justice, the bestselling A Civil Action — employ novelistic techniques to factual material. The Lynching isnʼt a disappointment, but it falls short of those gold standards. Leamerʼs narrative of injustice and entrenched multi-generational evil would have benefited from more show and less tell.
Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.