Lynching of Michael Donald

The lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama, on March 21, 1981, was one of the last reported lynchings in the United States.[1][2] Several Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members beat and killed Michael Donald, a 19-year-old African-American, and hung his body from a tree. One perpetrator, Henry Hays, was executed by electric chair in 1997, while another, James Knowles, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty and testifying against Hays. A third man was convicted as an accomplice and also sentenced to life in prison, and a fourth was indicted, but died before his trial could be completed.

Michael Donald
Michael Donald in an undated photograph
BornJuly 24, 1961
DiedMarch 21, 1981 (aged 19)
Cause of deathLynching

Hays's execution was the first in Alabama since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. It was the only execution of a KKK member during the 20th century for the murder of an African American.[3] Donald's mother, Beulah Mae Donald, brought a civil suit for wrongful death against the United Klans of America (UKA), to which the attackers belonged. In 1987 a jury awarded her damages of $7 million, which bankrupted the organization. This set a precedent for civil legal action for damages against other racist hate groups.



Michael Donald (July 24, 1961 – March 21, 1981) was born in Mobile, Alabama, the son of Beulah Mae (Greggory) Donald and David Donald. He was the youngest of six children.[4] He attended local schools while growing up. In 1981, he was studying at a technical college, while working at the local newspaper, the Mobile Press Register.[5]

Donald 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.



In 1981, Josephus Anderson, an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman in Birmingham, Alabama, during an armed robbery, was tried in Mobile, where the case had been moved in a change of venue.[5] At a meeting held in Mobile while the jury was still deliberating, members of Unit 900 of the United Klans of America (UKA), Alabama Realm, complained that Anderson was not convicted since the jury had African-American members. Bennie Jack Hays, the second-highest-ranking official in the UKA, reportedly 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."[4][6]

The first trial of Anderson ended with a deadlock of the mixed white-black jury.[5] Anderson's case was retried, which resulted in a second mistrial declared on all four counts on Friday March 20, 1981. At 10 p.m., local media started to report the hung jury's second failure to reach a verdict.[5] Following a meeting held together the same day, Henry Hays (aged 26) – Bennie Hays's son and the Exalted Cyclops of the UKA[7] – along with James Llewellyn "Tiger" Knowles (aged 17),[3][8] both drove around Mobile looking for a black person to attack, armed with a gun and equipped with a rope borrowed from Frank Cox, Hays's brother-in-law.[4][7]

Anderson would ultimately have a third mistrial before being convicted of capital murder at his fourth trial, albeit the jury spared him from execution. Anderson was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He died in the Holman Correctional Facility – coincidentally, the same location where Henry Hays was executed – where he was still serving his sentence, in March 2021.[9]



While Hays and Knowles were cruising through one of Mobile's mostly black neighborhoods, they spotted Michael Donald walking home after he bought a pack of cigarettes for his sister, at the nearby gas station.[5][3] Without any link to the Anderson case or even a past criminal record, Donald was chosen at random for being black.[5] The two UKA members lured him over to their car by asking him for directions to a local club and forced Donald into the car at gunpoint. The men then drove out to another county and took him to a secluded area in the woods near Mobile Bay.[5][3]

Donald attempted to escape, knocking away Hays's gun and trying to run into the woods. The men pursued Donald, attacked him and beat him with a tree limb. Hays wrapped a rope around Donald's neck and pulled on it to strangle him while Knowles continued to beat Donald with a tree branch. Once Donald had stopped moving, Hays slit his throat three times to make sure he was dead. The men left Donald's lifeless body hanging from a tree on Herndon Avenue across the street from Hays's house in Mobile, where it remained until the next morning.[5][3][7] The same night, two other UKA members burned a cross on the Mobile County courthouse lawn to celebrate the murder.[5][7]

Investigation and criminal proceedings




Officers first took three suspects into custody based on their possible involvement in a drug deal gone wrong;[4] Donald's mother insisted that her son had not been involved in drugs. The police released the suspects at the conclusion of their investigation. Beulah Mae Donald contacted national civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson,[6] who organized a protest march in the city and demanded answers from the police.[10]

The FBI investigated the case and it was ready to close its investigation,[6] but Thomas Figures, the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Mobile, asked the Dept. of Justice to authorize a second investigation. He worked closely with FBI agent James Bodman.[4] 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,[4] leading to the indictment of Benjamin Franklin Cox Jr., a truck driver, as an accomplice in the criminal case. Henry's father Bennie Hays was also indicted.



Henry Francis Hays (November 10, 1954 – June 6, 1997) was convicted of capital murder. The jury voted in favor of life imprisonment but the judge overruled the jury's verdict and sentenced Hays to death.[7][11] He was incarcerated in the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, while on death row.[12] Hays was executed in "Yellow Mama", Alabama's electric chair, on June 6, 1997. Among the witnesses to the execution was Michael Donald's brother. The Associated Press reported that Hays was Alabama's first execution since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. Hays is the only known KKK member to have been executed in the 20th century for the murder of an African American.[3]

James Llewellyn "Tiger" Knowles was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1985 for violating the civil rights of Michael Donald, and pleaded guilty to civil rights violations in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.[7] By the end of the trial, he was 21 years old. U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand sentenced him to life in prison.[13] Knowles avoided a death sentence by testifying against Hays, Cox, and other Klansmen at the trial.[3][7] He'd earlier testified that the slaying was done "to show Klan strength in Alabama."[13] Knowles served 25 years in prison before being paroled in the mid-2000s.[14]

Benjamin Franklin Cox Jr., a truck driver from Mobile who provided the rope, was initially discharged by a trial judge in 1984, citing Alabama's 3-year statute of limitations for criminal conspiracy, but an Alabama grand jury reindicted Cox for murder in 1987. Initially resulting in a mistrial in 1988, a second trial held on May 18, 1989, led to Cox's conviction for being an accomplice in Donald's killing.[15][7] Mobile County Circuit Court judge Michael Zoghby sentenced the then 28-year-old Cox to life in prison.[15] He was paroled in 2000.[16]

The elder Hays was indicted for inciting the murder.[17] Tried some years later, his case ended in a mistrial when he collapsed in court.[3] Judge Zoghby said that because of the illness of the elder Hays, then 71, he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. Hays's lawyer was willing to go forward with proceedings.[18] Hays died of a heart attack before he could be retried.[3]

Civil proceedings

Memorial marker at the murder site by the African-American Heritage Trail of Mobile

Acting at the request of Beulah Mae Donald, Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, and Michael Figures brought a wrongful death suit in 1984 against the United Klans of America in federal court in the Southern District of Alabama, according to the SPLC.[19] 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.[citation needed]

The original complaint was considered too vague to hold up,[clarification needed] 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.[20] In 1987, an all-white jury had decided that rather than hold Knowles, the elder and younger Hayses liable, it found the entire UKA as a group to be at fault. The UKA was sentenced to damages of $7 million in the wrongful-death verdict in the case.[19] The suit became a precedent for civil legal action against other racist hate groups in the United States.[citation needed]

Payment of the judgment bankrupted the United Klans of America. The group was forced to settle the suit by selling its two-story "national headquarters" building for $51,875, the proceeds going to Donald's mother.[21][22] She died the following year on September 17, 1988.[23]


Michael Donald Avenue

In 2006, Mobile commemorated Michael Donald by renaming Herndon Avenue, where the murderers had hanged Donald's body, after Donald. Mobile's first black mayor, Sam Jones, presided over a small gathering of Donald's family and local leaders at the commemoration.[6]

Donald's murder has been the subject of several works of fiction and nonfiction. The Texan political commentator Molly Ivins told the story of the Donald family in her essay, "Beulah Mae Donald," which appeared in her 1991 anthology, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?.[24] Ravi Howard wrote a novel, Like Trees, Walking (2007), based on the murder.[25] He won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence in 2008 for it. Laurence Leamer wrote a book, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan (2016), chronicling the case.

In film and television, the 1991 film Line of Fire (also called Blind Hate) depicts the civil court case related to the murder.[26] Ted Koppel created "The Last Lynching", a Discovery Channel television program about US civil rights history that aired in October 2008. It centered on the murder of Michael Donald, the criminal prosecution of his killers, and the civil suit against the UKA.[2] The National Geographic's Inside American Terror series explored Donald's murder in a 2008 episode about the KKK.[27] In 2021, CNN produced a four-episode miniseries, The People v. The Klan, that focused on Beulah Mae Donald's lawsuit against the UKA.[28]

See also



  1. ^ "The 'Last Lynching': How Far Have We Come?". NPR (National Public Radio). October 13, 2008. Archived from the original on May 27, 2012. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Daniel M. Gold (October 12, 2008). "In the Bad Old Days, Not So Very Long Ago". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 24, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Smith, Gita M. "Alabama case shows how father's sins were visited on son: Whites execution for killing black didn't end inherited racism". Atlanta Journal-Constitution (newspaper). p. A4.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Kornbluth, Jesse (November 1, 1987). "The Woman Who Beat The Klan". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 18, 2015. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Tolnay, Stewart Emory; Beck, E. M. (1995). A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. University of Illinois Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-0-252-06413-5.
  6. ^ a b c d Kornbluth, Jesse (November 12, 2014). "They Killed Her Son. So Michael Donald's Mother Went After the Klan". The Good Men Project. Archived from the original on December 23, 2014. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Alfieri, Anthony V. (1997). "Lynching Ethics: Toward a Theory of Racialized Defenses". Michigan Law Review. 95 (4): 1063–1104. doi:10.2307/1290053. ISSN 0026-2234. JSTOR 1290053.
  8. ^ "Suit Filed Against KKK In Death Of Black Youth," Jet. Johnson Publishing Company, July 9, 1984. Vol. 66, No. 18. ISSN 0021-5996. 39 Archived November 29, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved from Google Books on March 3, 2011.
  9. ^ Sher, David; Glass, Jay (October 10, 2021). "1979 Birmingham murder leads to Mobile lynching and end of Alabama KKK". Archived from the original on June 8, 2023. Retrieved June 8, 2023.
  10. ^ "Michael Donald" Archived August 10, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, Spartacus website]
  11. ^ "Alabama Judge Overrules Jury, Sentences A Klansman To Death". The New York Times. February 3, 1984. Archived from the original on October 22, 2023. Retrieved October 22, 2023.
  12. ^ "Alabama pays Ohio for holding Klansman." Associated Press at The Tuscaloosa News. September 25, 1994. 8B. Retrieved from Google News (12 of 132) on March 3, 2011. "His son, Henry Hays, was sentenced to death for the Donald murder. He awaits an execution date at Holman Prison."
  13. ^ a b "Klansman sentenced for killing black man." Gainesville Sun. April 12, 1985. 6A. Retrieved from Google News (96 of 140) on March 3, 2011.
  14. ^ Popovici, Alice (June 23, 2016). "'There's Still Hate in the American Soul'". The Crime Report. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  15. ^ a b "Ex-Klansman sentenced to life in prison for murder." Associated Press at the Observer-Reporter. June 24, 1989, B-3. Retrieved from Google News (13 of 109) on March 3, 2011.
  16. ^ Lee, Kevin (March 21, 2021). "How a Detective Who Was Blamed for One Lynching Solved Another". The Daily Beast. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  17. ^ Lewis, Claude (June 9, 1997). "Is It Progress For Alabama To Execute A White Man?". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  18. ^ "Mistrial for Former Klansmen Archived 2017-02-04 at the Wayback Machine." Associated Press at the Los Angeles Times. February 6, 1988. Retrieved on March 3, 2011.
  19. ^ a b "Donald v. United Klans of America". Southern Poverty Law Center. 1988. Archived from the original on February 6, 2006. Retrieved September 18, 2007.
  20. ^ "Alex Howard, former federal judge, dies in Mobile at 86". Press-Register. February 10, 2011. Archived from the original on March 4, 2012. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  21. ^ Paul Finkelman (2006). The Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties: A - F, Index. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1502–4. ISBN 978-0-415-94342-0.
  22. ^ Anthony Joseph Stanonis (2008). Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South. University of Georgia Press. pp. 181–2. ISBN 978-0-8203-3169-0.
  23. ^ "Beulah Mae Donald; Sued Klan, Won". Los Angeles Times. September 20, 1988. Archived from the original on April 18, 2015. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  24. ^ Ivins, Molly (1991). "Beulah Mae Donald". Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?. Vintage. pp. 255–262. ISBN 9780679741831.
  25. ^ "Novelist Ravi Howard on 'Like Trees, Walking'". NPR. March 7, 2007. Archived from the original on April 14, 2015. Retrieved January 5, 2015.
  26. ^ Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story, 1991, archived from the original on November 17, 2016, retrieved October 12, 2016
  27. ^ "Michael Donald clip on KKK: Inside American Terror". National Geographic. 2008. Archived from the original on October 30, 2008. Retrieved November 18, 2008.
  28. ^ Hare, Breeanna (April 9, 2021). "'The People v. The Klan': How to watch and what to read next". CNN. Retrieved June 26, 2021.