Michael Donald left home the evening of 1981 and never returned. He just wanted a pack of cigarettes. What his murderers wanted was ugly and complex.
The young Donald was 19 years old, youngest son of Beulah Mae Donald. He bought his cigarettes at a convenience store, then started for home.
That same night, two young Klansmen went on the prowl, blood lust in their hearts. They were angry because a black man had not been convicted of shooting a white policeman.
Henry Hays was 26. His accomplice, James Lewellyn Knowles, was 17. They drove around looking for a victim and happened upon Michael Donald, though any black man would have been just fine. They kidnapped him, took him out to the woods, brutally beat him, slit his throat, and strangled him.
When they were sure he was dead, they brought his mangled body home and hung it from a tree across the street from their Mobile, Alabama, home. Maybe people were too slow discovering it. They called the local television station to film their victim and likely laughed when the cameras arrived before the police.
Hays’s daddy must have been proud. Bernie Hays was second in command of the Alabama Klans. Big Daddy and his Klan brothers gathered on the front porch and jeered the police.
The district attorney bought the story made up by white folks and called the murder a drug deal gone bad. Some figured Michael Donald must have been dating a white girl and deserved what he got.
Beulah Mae Donald was having none of it. She would not let her son’s murder be swept under the rug of racism. She found allies and insisted her son’s case be resolved. The FBI became involved, albeit reluctantly. So did the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The FBI were able to link Knowles and Hays to the murder. Knowles testified against Hays to avoid the death penalty. Hays was executed in 1997. Knowles was imprisoned for life, as was Benjamin Cox, who was identified as a third accomplice.
Not since 1913 had a white-on-black crime ended in conviction. But this is not a story about retribution. It is a story about the mighty power of redemption and about one woman’s taking on power and winning.
At his trial in June 1983, James Knowles was a frightened, sorrowful young man. Before the trial went to jury, he asked the jury to convict him and begged Beulah Mae Donald to forgive him. She did not hesitate to offer him the forgiveness she had, in her heart, given him much earlier.
The grieving mother’s willingness to forgive would be enough to make this a story of hope, but she did something else. She bankrupted the Alabama Klan. She filed a civil suit against them and won a judgement of $7 million dollars.
They never recovered from the blow to their finances, nor should they have. Beulah Mae Donald stood up to endemic hatred, to vicious racism, and refused to bow down. Her resolve exposed the Klan publicly for the morally bankrupt, brutally ugly organization it was.
The case did not end racism in America, as the virulent anti-Obama tirades have shown. But it did strike a blow against it…and all because one loving mother would not allow her son’s memory to be despoiled by hate.