Michael Donald (July 24, 1961 – March 21, 1981) was a young African-American man who was murdered in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama, by two Ku Klux Klan members. The arbitrary murder is sometimes referred to as the last recorded lynching in the United States because his two attackers hung his body from a tree, in the pattern of mob lynchings.
The prosecution of Donald's murder in both criminal and civil trials resulted in notable convictions and sentences. His two attackers were convicted of murder; one was sentenced to death and executed in 1997, and the younger man sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty and testifying against his partner. This was the first execution in Alabama since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. In addition, Hays was the only known KKK member to be executed during the 20th century for the murder of an African American. A third man was convicted as an accomplice, and a fourth indicted but he died before his case could be completed at trial. In the same time period, Donald's mother brought a civil suit for wrongful death against the United Klans of America, to which the attackers belonged. In 1987 the jury found the UKA guilty and awarded damages of $7 million, which bankrupted that organization. This case set a precedent in the United States for legal action against other racist groups.
Michael Donald was born in 1961 in Mobile, Alabama, the son of Beulah Mae (Greggory) Donald and David Donald, and his mother's youngest of six children. (David was her second husband.) Michael grew up in a city and state influenced by the passage in the mid-1960s of federal civil rights legislation that ended legal segregation and provided for federal oversight and enforcement of voting rights. African Americans could again participate in politics in the South; their ability to register to vote also meant that they were selected for juries. Donald attended local schools while growing up, and in 1981 was studying at a technical college, while working at the local newspaper.
In 1981, Josephus Anderson, an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman in Birmingham, was tried in Mobile, where the case had been moved. There were indications that the jury was struggling to reach a verdict. At a meeting on Wednesday, within Unit 900 of the United Klans of America, members complained that having African-American members on the jury was the reason it had not convicted Anderson. Bennie Jack Hays, the second-highest-ranking official in the United Klans in Alabama, said: "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." On Friday, a mistrial was declared.
That same night Klan members burned a three-foot cross on the Mobile County courthouse lawn. After a meeting, Bennie Hays' son, Henry Hays (age 26), and James Llewellyn "Tiger" Knowles (age 17), armed with a gun and rope, drove around Mobile looking for a black to attack. At random, they spotted Michael Donald walking home after buying his sister a pack of cigarettes. They kidnapped him, drove out to another county and a secluded area in the woods, attacked him and beat him with a tree limb. They wrapped a rope around his neck, and pulled on it to strangle him, before slitting his throat and hanging him from a tree in a mixed neighborhood in Mobile, on Herndon Street across from a house owned by Klan leader Bennie Jack Hays.
While the local police chief suspected the Klan, officers first took in three suspects on possible involvement with a drug deal gone wrong; Donald's mother insisted that he had not been involved in drugs, and the police released the suspects after investigation. Beulah Mae Donald contacted national civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, who organized a protest march in the city and demanded answers from the police.
The FBI investigated and was ready to close its investigation, but Thomas Figures, the Assistant US Attorney in Mobile, asked the Dept. of Justice to authorize a second investigation and worked closely with FBI agent James Bodman. His brother Michael Figures, a state senator and civil rights activist, served as an attorney to Beulah Mae Donald and also encouraged the investigation. Two and a half years later in 1983, Henry Hays and James Knowles were arrested. Knowles confessed to Bodman in 1983, and additional evidence was revealed during the civil trial initiated by Donald's mother Beulah Mae Donald in 1984. As a result, in 1988 Benjamin Franklin Cox, Jr., a truckdriver, was indicted as an accomplice in the criminal case. Henry's father Bennie Hays was also indicted in Donald's murder.
Henry Hays was convicted and sentenced to death. He was incarcerated in the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama, while on death row. He was executed in the electric chair on June 6, 1997. The Associated Press reported that Hays was Alabama's first execution since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. Hays was the only known KKK member to be executed during the 20th century for the murder of an African American.
James Llewellyn "Tiger" Knowles was also convicted of murder; by the end of the trial, he was 21 years of age. U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand sentenced him to life in prison. He avoided the death penalty by testifying against Hays at trial. Knowles had earlier testified that the slaying was done "to show Klan strength in Alabama."
On May 18, 1989, Benjamin Franklin Cox, Jr., a truck driver from Mobile, was convicted in a federal court for being an accomplice in the Donald killing. Mobile County Circuit Court judge Michael Zoghby sentenced the then 28-year-old Cox to life in prison for his part in the Donald murder.
The elder Hays was indicted for inciting the murder and tried some years later, but his case ended in a mistrial when he collapsed in court. Judge Zoghby said that because of the illness of the elder Hays, then 71, he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. Hays' lawyer was willing to go forward with proceedings. Hays died of a heart attack before he could be retried.
Acting at the request of Beulah Mae Donald, Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, brought a wrongful death suit in 1984 against the United Klans of America in federal court in the Southern District of Alabama for her son's death. The official court transcript shows that the original concept, as charged in the complaint, was considered too vague to hold up, but Judge Alex T. Howard Jr. helped refine the legal theory of "agency," which held the Klan accountable for the acts of its members. This prevented the case from being dismissed before it could go to the jury.
In 1987 the Klan was convicted of the charge by an all-white jury and sentenced to damages of $7 million in the wrongful-death verdict in the case. The settlement bankrupted the United Klans of America. The suit served as a precedent for legal action against other racist groups in the United States.
The Donald family was given the deed to the UKA meeting hall in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, its only sizeable asset, as part of the settlement. Beulah Mae Donald used some of the settlement money to buy her first house. Beulah Mae Donald died the following year on September 17, 1988.
The civil trial brought out evidence that enabled the criminal indictment and conviction of Cox as an accomplice, and of Bennie Jack Hays for inciting the murder. Cox was sentenced to life in prison, and Hays died at age 71 before his prosecution could be completed.(See above)
In 2006, Mobile commemorated Michael Donald by renaming Herndon Avenue, where his body had been hanged from a tree by his murderers, in his honor. Mobile's first black mayor, Sam Jones, presided over a small gathering of Donald's family and local leaders at the commemoration.Ravi Howard wrote a novel, Like Trees, Walking (2007), based on this event. He won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence in 2008 for this novel.
Koppel on Discovery special aired "The Last Lynching" in October 2008, a program about civil rights history in the United States, centering on the murder of Michael Donald and the criminal prosecution of his killers and the civil suit against the UKA.
The National Geographic's Inside American Terror series explored Donald's murder in an episode about the KKK in 2008.