Daryl Michael Scott is a professor of history at Howard University.
On a March night in 1981, teenager Michael Donald was walking down a street in Mobile, Ala., when he found himself in a life-or-death struggle with two members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klansmen had been sent out by their klavern to find a black man, any black man, and kill him. The reason was bloodlust retaliation after a nearly all-black jury did not convict a black man charged with killing a white police officer. The Klansmen carried out their orders, beating Donald, slitting his throat and leaving his body hanging from a tree.
The young black man’s death is the starting point for Laurence Leamer’s “The Lynching,” a tale that chronicles how a grisly Klan murder wound up hobbling the organization. The hero of the book is Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who sued the Klan for the murder and won restitution from the organization for Donald’s family.
Leamer infuses his tale with the drama of a popular novel. In this struggle of good against evil, Dees is pitted against Klan Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton. If this story is about how a court case destroyed the Klan, it is also about how the South managed to produce a Southern liberal worthy of epic treatment. But for the most part, Leamer’s narrative seeks to understand the actions of the whites involved in the case, and as a result the black victim and his family tend to recede into the background. The marginalization of the black story speaks volumes about the presumed consumer of this type of history — a white audience trying to make sense of the white South. And Leamer delivers on that story, highlighting the internal struggles of Southern whites as they grapple with racial change in their communities from the late 1950s through the 1980s. Readers seeking a chronicle that places the black victims at the center are advised to consider “Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America,” by B.J. Hollars, which explores the Donald case and two others.
Leamer provides background on the Klan’s evolution, from its origins in the South during Reconstruction through its prohibition and reappearance in both the North and the South in the World War I era. It grew, then imploded in corruption, only to revive yet again during the civil rights era as a brutal force intimidating and murdering blacks in their quest for equal rights.
By the 1980s, the Klan’s reaction in the Donald case reflected the organization’s growing sense of betrayal by the courts and the government. The Klan feared that race relations were not moving favorably in its direction; its belief was that white supremacy was losing its hold and white people had to stand up for themselves. Fearing that the black defendant might not be convicted of killing the white police officer, one Klansman declared that “a n----- ought to be hung by the neck until dead to put them in their place.”
Thus was a tragedy set in motion. Leamer’s story underscores just how intense racial tensions were in the 1980s. Indeed, we need only glance at today’s headlines on black killings by police and the ensuing protests to realize that much progress still needs to be made. At the time of the Donald killing, many Americans tended to believe that white supremacy had been dismantled, but in fact white supremacists were still prevalent. While blacks and white progressives sought to remake the South into a land of racial inclusion and equality, many whites clung to the old order. The presence of the past was seen in Mobile in 1981 after that nearly all-black jury meted out justice as it saw fit. The subsequent murder of Michael Donald shows that rebuilding a legal system on civic ideals must be accompanied by enlightenment in the society at large.
By Laurence Leamer
Morrow. 372 pp. $27.99