While researching for the Sessions piece, I came across another story about Michael Donald’s murder, but it’s from a different point of view – that of Michael’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald.
IN HER DREAM, THERE was a steel-gray casket in her living room. Who was the dead man laid out in a gray suit? She couldn’t tell. And every time she moved closer to the coffin, someone she didn’t know said, ”You don’t need to see this.” But Beulah Mae Donald knew that she did, and so she woke from her dream at two in the morning in Mobile, Ala., on March 21, 1981. The first thing she did was to look in the other bedroom, where her youngest child slept. Michael, 19, wasn’t there. She phoned one of her six other children. Though Michael had watched television with his cousins earlier in the evening, he had left before midnight.
Michael never looked to his mother to provide for him, Mrs. Donald said. From early childhood, ”If he came home and I was lying down, he’d know something was wrong, and he’d do little things to help – that’s the kind of boy he was.” Michael worked hard at trade school, gave his mother most of the money he made and played basketball on a community team. Smoking, she said, was his only vice. ”I told him not to smoke,” she recalled. ”He’d say, ‘I’m going to college. Can’t I have a cigarette?’ ”
Mrs. Donald drank two cups of coffee and moved to her couch, where she waited for the new day. At dawn, Michael still wasn’t home. To keep busy, she went outside to rake her small yard. As she worked, a woman delivering insurance policies came by. ”They found a body,” she said, and walked on. Shortly before 7 A.M., Mrs. Donald’s phone rang. A woman had found Michael’s wallet in a trash bin. Mrs. Donald brightened – Michael was alive, she thought. ”No, baby, they had a party here, and they killed your son,” the caller reported. ”You’d better send somebody over.”
A few blocks away, in a racially mixed neighborhood about a mile from the Mobile police station, Michael Donald’s body was still hanging from a tree. Around his neck was a perfectly tied noose with 13 loops. On a front porch across the street, watching police gather evidence, were members of the United Klans of America, once the largest and the most violent of the Ku Klux Klans. Less than two hours after finding Michael Donald’s body, Mobile police would interview these Klansmen. Lawmen learned only much later, however, what Bennie Jack Hays, the 64-year-old Titan of the United Klans, was saying as he stood on the porch that morning. ”A pretty sight,” commented Hays, according to a fellow Klansman. ”That’s gonna look good on the news. Gonna look good for the Klan.”
Around the time Mrs. Donald was having her prescient nightmare, Henry Hays and Knowles returned to the party at Bennie Hays’s house, where they showed off their handiwork, and, looping the rope over a camphor tree, raised Michael’s body just high enough so it would swing.
The Mobile Police Chief was certain from the very beginning that the Klansmen were involved. Despite that, the police soon arrested three young men they described as ”junkie types.” Mrs. Donald was so eager to help the police that she allowed them to search Michael’s room for drugs. They tore the room apart and found none. When it became clear these men had no involvement in the killing, they were released – and, at the District Attorney’s invitation, the FBI entered the case. That investigation produced no useful evidence, however, and it seemed that the killers would go unpunished.
What Mrs. Donald needed was an advocate within the system. Fortunately, Thomas H. Figures had in 1978 become the Assistant US Attorney in Mobile, and he is, by any measure, a formidable advocate. His highest priority became getting the Justice Department to authorize a second F.B.I. investigation.
Figures’ request arrived in Washington just as the Justice Department was thinking of closing the case. ”As an act of appeasement to me -or to convince me that a second investigation would come to the same conclusion – I was allowed to work with a second F.B.I. agent, James Bodman,” Figures recalls. ”I’ll never forget the first thing Bodman said. He asked me, ‘Why the hell do you want to reopen this can of worms?’ But then he got interested in it, and we worked on it every day. We had lunch together, we talked at night – people started calling us ‘the odd couple.’ ” In a sense, they were; both are from the deep South, but Figures is black, and Bodman is white.
Figures and Bodman uncovered one key fact: On the night of the murder, Tiger Knowles had returned to Bennie Hays’s house with blood on his shirt. With this new evidence, the Justice Department convened an investigative grand jury in Mobile. Incredibly, the Klansmen called to testify did not bring lawyers with them. In short order, one witness told the grand jury that young Henry Hays had admitted everything to him. This got back to Tiger Knowles, who began to worry that Henry Hays would confess – and, by trading testimony against Knowles for a reduced sentence, leave him bearing the greater burden of guilt.
It took two years, a second FBI investigation and a skillfully elicited confession to convict Tiger Knowles of violating Michael Donald’s civil rights and Henry Hays of murder.
At that point, a grieving mother might have been expected to issue a brief statement of gratitude and regret, and then return to her mourning. Beulah Mae Donald would not settle for that. From the moment she insisted on an open casket for her battered son – ”so the world could know” – she challenged the silence of the Klan and the recalcitrance of the criminal justice system. Two convictions weren’t enough for her. She didn’t want revenge. She didn’t want money. All she ever wanted, she says, was to prove that ”Michael did no wrong.”
Mrs. Donald’s determination inspired a handful of lawyers and civil rights advocates, black and white. Enter one Morris Dees who engineered the civil suit for Mrs. Donald, and who understands her reliance on the Lord. Early in 1984, Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, suggested that Mrs. Donald file a civil suit against the members of Unit 900 and the United Klans of America. The killers were, he believed, carrying out an organizational policy set by the group’s Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton. If Dees could prove in court that this ”theory of agency” applied, Shelton’s Klan would be as liable for the murder as a corporation is for the actions its employees take in the service of business.
Shelton’s men had been involved in the beating of Freedom Riders at the Birmingham bus station in 1961, in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 and in the shooting of Viola Liuzzo near Selma in 1965. The challenge for Dees, Stanton and S.P.L.C. investigator Joe Roy was to locate former Klansmen who would testify that they were acting under orders when they participated in those beatings and killings – and, if possible, convince Klansmen involved in more recent racial incidents to come forward.
Mrs. Donald and her attorney, State Senator Michael A. Figures (Thomas’ brother), agreed to participate in the civil suit.
From its new headquarters, the SPLC undertook its most massive anti-Klan project in 1984, using Mrs. Donald’s civil suit to dismantle Robert Shelton’s branch of the Klan.
In the 18 months it took to prepare the case, Beulah Mae Donald says, Morris Dees didn’t neglect her. ”We didn’t meet until the trial, but Morris and I would talk on the phone. He’d say, ‘You still ready to go through with this?’ And he did everything possible – he sent $35, $50 every few weeks. He helped when we needed it.”
Mrs. Donald had to push herself to attend the civil trial and she cried silently when Knowles stepped off the witness stand to demonstrate how he helped kill her son. She steeled herself as the six Mobile Klansmen and the lawyer for the United Klans of America cross examined Dees’ witnesses, but called none of their own. Just four days after the trial had started, it was time for the closing arguments.
At lunch break that day, Tiger Knowles called Morris Dees to his cell and said he wanted to speak in court.
When court resumed, the judge nodded to Knowles. ”I’ve got just a few things to say,” Knowles began, as he stood in front of the jury box. ”I know that people’s tried to discredit my testimony. . . . I’ve lost my family. I’ve got people after me now. Everything I said is true. . . . I was acting as a Klansman when I done this. And I hope that people learn from my mistake. . . . I do hope you decide a judgment against me and everyone else involved.”
Then Knowles turned to Beulah Mae Donald, and, as they locked eyes for the first time, begged for her forgiveness. ”I can’t bring your son back,” he said, sobbing and shaking. ”God knows if I could trade places with him, I would. I can’t. Whatever it takes – I have nothing. But I will have to do it. And if it takes me the rest of my life to pay it, any comfort it may bring, I hope it will.” By this time, jurors were openly weeping. The judge wiped away a tear.
”I do forgive you,” Mrs. Donald said. ”From the day I found out who you all was, I asked God to take care of y’all, and He has.”
A few months after the verdict, Mrs. Donald was still recovering from the courtroom drama. Soon, she said, the Klan building will be sold. She can no longer live in the Projects, but in her new home, her family hopes, she’ll find some peace. “What happened to Michael – I live it day and night. I was just surprised that a white jury could do this.”
On the strength of evidence presented at the civil trial, the Mobile District Attorney was able to indict Bennie Hays and his son-in-law, Frank Cox, for murder.
Last February, an all-white jury in Mobile needed to deliberate only four hours before awarding her $7 million. In May, the Klan turned over the deed to its only significant asset, the $225,000 national headquarters building in Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, Mrs. Donald’s attorney moved to seize the property and garnish the wages of individual defendants. ”The Klan, at this point, is washed up,” says Henry Hays, from his cell on death row.
Of the money, she said ”I don’t need it. I live day to day, like always. But there’s some sad people in the world who don’t have food to eat or a decent place to stay. I’ve been there. I know what it means to have nothing. If the Klan don’t give me a penny, that’s O.K. But if they do, I’m going to help a lot of people who don’t have none.”
So if someone asks you who took the Klan down, you say ‘Beulah Mae Donald did. She challenged them and she broke them.’