Along with several other awards she had received, in December of 1987, Beulah Mae Donald of Mobile, Alabama was named one of Ms. Magazine’s 1987 Women of the Year. I feel extremely sure Mrs. Donald wished there had never been a reason for her to receive those tributes. In honor of Black History Month, meet an extraordinary woman.
In March 21, 1981, Mrs. Donald, a divorced single mother of seven, woke from an unsettling dream around 2:00 a.m. There was no falling back to sleep so she got up and headed to the kitchen. On her way, she passed by the bedroom of her youngest son, Michael Donald. He was not in his bed. She telephoned one of her grown children where Michael had visited earlier in the evening, watching television with his cousins. She was told he left before midnight.
Beulah finished two cups of coffee before moving to her sofa and waited for the sun to come up. At dawn, Michael still wasn’t home. To keep busy, she went outside to rake her small yard. As she worked, a woman walked by and told her “They found a body” and continued walking. Shortly before 7:00 a.m., Beulah received a call. Michael Donald’s body was discovered hanging from a camphor tree. There was a perfectly tied noose with 13 loops around his neck. He had been beaten to death and his throat had been slit three times.
Michael had been alone, walking home, when he was spotted by Klansmen Henry Francis Hays and James (Tiger) Knowles. That week, a jury had been struggling to reach a verdict in the retrial of a black man accused of murdering a white policeman. The killing had occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, but the trial had been moved to Mobile. When the jury failed to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared for the second time, a local Klansman declared, “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.” Spurred on by the hateful rhetoric of the United Klans of America, Hays (26 years old) and Tiger (17 years old), grabbed a pistol and a rope and headed out in Henry’s car.
When Hays and Knowles spotted Michael, they ordered him into their car at gunpoint and drove to a secluded area in the woods in the next county. When they stopped, Michael, terrified and confused, tried to escape. They chased him, caught him and beat him with a tree limb more than a hundred times according to trial testimony. When he lay still and was no longer moving, they wrapped the rope around his neck which they used to hang him on that camphor tree across the street from Hay’s house. They raised his body high enough that it would swing. Beulah Donald’s grief for her son, her youngest child, was overwhelming. She could hardly remember identifying his bloody body. She did find the strength to insist on an open casket for her battered son so “the world would know.” She wanted the world to witness the brutality of the assault.
Even though the Mobile police chief believed from the very beginning that the Klansmen were involved, they tried to redirect the evidence to suggest a drug deal gone bad. The police arrested three young men described as “junkie types”, but they were soon released. At this point, the District Attorney’s office invited the Federal Bureau of Investigation to enter the case. Their investigation produced no helpful evidence, and it appeared the killers would go unpunished. Mobile’s black community organized local rallies that eventually drew the attention of Reverend Jesse Jackson who led a protest march in Mobile and demanded answers from the police. Two years after that horrible night in 1981, a second FBI investigation elicited a confession from Knowles, allowing them to convict Tiger Knowles of violating Michael Donald’s civil rights and Henry Hays of murder. Henry Hays received the death sentence and was executed in Alabama’s electric chair on June 6, 1997, Alabama’s first execution since 1913 for white-on-black crime. Knowles who had served as a key witness against the Klan, was sentenced to life in prison. He was released on parole in 2010.
Finally, some justice for her son, but Beulah did not settle for that. She wasn’t looking for money. She wasn’t looking for revenge. She was wise enough to realize that the death of her son didn’t happen in a bubble and wanted the Klan held accountable for the acts of its members.
Early in 1984, attorney Morris Dees, co-founder of the esteemed Southern Poverty Law Center, approached Mrs. Donald about filing a civil suit against members of Unit 900 and the United Klans of America to prove Hays and Knowles were carrying out an organizational policy set by the group’s Imperial Wizard. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit that sought to hold the organization and its members liable for the murder. If they could prove in court that the “theory of agency” applied, the Klan would be held liable for the murder as a corporation is for the detrimental actions of its employees in the service of business.
At the culmination of the civil trial, it took an all-white jury in Mobile only four hours of deliberation before awarding Beulah Mae Donald $7 million. The Klan didn’t have the money and eventually turned over the deed to its only significant asset, the national headquarters building in Tuscaloosa. The building eventually sold for $51, 875, the proceedings going to Donald’s mother. The result of the trial bankrupted the Klan and represented the first time the KKK was held financially responsible for the actions.
Beulah Donald’s is a story that has stuck with me, niggling away. I think about her sitting on the couch waiting for the sun to rise, wondering where her son was. I am also a mother and have worried about my children. But unlike Mrs. Donald, I have never had to worry that my sons would be targeted simply for the color of their skin. I think about her strength, her refusal to back down and how that began to change the options for victims of hate crimes and their families.
And I think about her devotion to her children. She was determined that Michael would not become “just another colored man, as they say, gone on and forgotten.” Beulah Mae passed away in 1988 at the age of 67. She was a hero and a Woman of Consequence.
Yesterday afternoon after I had scheduled this post for today, I received a phone call from my sister. She had seen a promo for the new CNN Original Series THE PEOPLE v THE KLAN, coming in April, 2021 focusing on Mrs. Donald’s fight for justice for her son. If this post piqued your interest, you may want to keep your eye out for the special. I know I’ll be watching.