The New York Times bestselling author of The Kennedy Women chronicles the powerful and spellbinding true story of a brutal race-based killing in 1981 and subsequent trials that undid one of the most pernicious organizations in American history—the Ku Klux Klan.
On a Friday night in March 1981 Henry Hays and James Knowles scoured the streets of Mobile in their car, hunting for a black man. The young men were members of Klavern 900 of the United Klans of America. They were seeking to retaliate after a largely black jury could not reach a verdict in a trial involving a black man accused of the murder of a white man. The two Klansmen found nineteen-year-old Michael Donald walking home alone. Hays and Knowles abducted him, beat him, cut his throat, and left his body hanging from a tree branch in a racially mixed residential neighborhood.
Arrested, charged, and convicted, Hays was sentenced to death—the first time in more than half a century that the state of Alabama sentenced a white man to death for killing a black man. On behalf of Michael’s grieving mother, Morris Dees, the legendary civil rights lawyer and cofounder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a civil suit against the members of the local Klan unit involved and the UKA, the largest Klan organization. Charging them with conspiracy, Dees put the Klan on trial, resulting in a verdict that would level a deadly blow to its organization.
Based on numerous interviews and extensive archival research, The Lynching brings to life two dramatic trials, during which the Alabama Klan’s motives and philosophy were exposed for the evil they represent. In addition to telling a gripping and consequential story, Laurence Leamer chronicles the KKK and its activities in the second half the twentieth century, and illuminates its lingering effect on race relations in America today.
The Lynching includes sixteen pages of black-and-white photographs.
The prolific Leamer (The Price of Justice)swiftly traces the entwined lives of three Alabama men civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, Gov. George Wallace, and top Klansman Robert Shelton during and following the civil rights movement. Bookending this tripartite biography are two legal cases concerning the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, a young black man lynched by United Klans of America (UKA) members in Mobile County. The ensuing investigation and criminal trial reveal lingering sympathies for white supremacy. During Shelton's time as imperial wizard, Klansmen had attacked Freedom Riders in collusion with local cops and bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Leamer details Shelton's privileged relationship with Governor Wallace, who rode populist racism into the state's executive office and ran for president, showing how Wallace stoked rage against integration while carefully distancing himself from racist violence. As a student, Dees worked for Wallace's gubernatorial campaign and had even defended a Klansman in court. By the time he files a civil lawsuit against Shelton and the UKA over Donald's death, intending to bankrupt the organization, Dees is a changed man. Leamer's slice of American civil rights history prefers courtrooms and the Capitol to churches and the streets, with Dees a cunning and tenacious lawyer doing dangerously unpopular work playing hero. This well-written, suspense-filled book vividly evokes themes from the ugly, not-so-distant past.
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Coming Together in a Time of Disintegration
In the current socio-political landscape of the United States (September 2016), it is easy to forget that people of both courage and conscience can make a significant difference. Through the dogged determination and bravery of the Donald Family, along with Morris Dees and his colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center, it is evident that when we allow ourselves to think flexibly and consider others beyond our limited spheres, true change can actually happen. Perhaps reading this book can soften the hardened hearts of so many of our fellow citizens.