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Michael Donald (pictured), a 19-year-old from Mobile, Alabama, was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched on March 20, 1981, in what authorities said was a KKK conspiracy.
Donald was beaten, hacked, and strangled before his corpse was hung up in a tree across the street from one of the perpetrators’ residences. Ms. Beulah Mae Donald, Donald’s mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the United Klans of America (UKA). In 1987, a jury granted her $7 million in damages, effectively bankrupting the organization. In 1997, Henry Hays was executed via electric chair. After pleading guilty and testifying against Hays, James Knowles was sentenced to life in prison.
As an accomplice, a third culprit was convicted and sentenced to life in jail. A suspect was charged, however, he died before his trial could begin. Hays and Knowles were driving through one of Mobile’s mostly Black areas when they saw Michael Donald going home after purchasing a pack of smokes for his sister at a nearby gas station. Donald was picked at random because he is black.
The two UKA members drew Donald over to their vehicle by asking for directions to a nearby club and then forced him into the car at gunpoint. The guys then drove him to another county and dropped him off in a remote part of the woods near Mobile Bay. Donald attempted to flee, pushing Hays’ rifle away and running into the woods. Donald was chased, assaulted, and beaten with a tree branch by the men. Hays strangled Donald by wrapping a rope around his neck and pulling on it.
Knowles proceeded to beat Donald with a branch from a tree. Hays slashed Donald’s neck three times after he had stopped moving to ensure his death. The guys hung Donald’s dead corpse from a tree on Herndon Avenue in Mobile, across the street from Hays’ home, where it stayed until the following morning. On the same night, two additional UKA members set fire to a crucifix on the Mobile County courthouse lawn. To commemorate the murder, people gathered in the courtroom yard.
Despite his mother’s assertion that he was not engaged in drugs, local police first believed that Donald was slain as part of a botched drug transaction. Ms. Beulah Mae called Jesse Jackson, who organized a citywide protest march and sought answers from local police. The FBI was finally called in. Henry Hays and James Knowles were captured two years later. Bennie Hays was also charged with Donald’s murder. However, he died before his trial could begin.
Herndon Avenue in Mobile was renamed Michael Donald Avenue in 2006. Sam Jones, Mobile’s first Black mayor, presided over the modest gathering of Michael Donald’s family and local dignitaries at the memorial. Ravi Howard’s 2007 book “Like Trees Walking” was inspired by Donald’s experience.
In 2008, National Geographic’s “Inside American Terror” program investigated his death.