One Friday afternoon in March 1981, Henry Hays and James Knowles, two best friends in Mobile, Alabama, borrowed a rope and tied it into a hanging noose, a “special noose” of 13 knots immediately recognisable as the Ku Klux Klan’s signature.
At 11 o’clock that night, Michael Donald, a young black man who’d just spent his tax return on blue jeans, Converse high-tops and a belt with a Led Zeppelin buckle, was given a dollar by his sister and asked by his niece to go out and buy a packet of cigarettes. At two in the morning, his mother, Beulah Mae, dreamt of a steel casket in her living room; when she moved towards this casket to see the deceased’s face, she was warned away by a stranger.
At sun-up, Michael Donald was found strapped to a tree, the noose around his neck, his throat cut and his Converse sneakers touching the ground.
Mobile, a port city with “a Caribbean feeling” has a mixed population, with whites ranging “from good ole boys to Louisiana Cajuns” and black residents descended equally from slaves and from free men and women. In the early 1900s, whites had lynched at least a dozen black men here; in one case, 3000 residents took the train to witness the lynching of two black men, taking “pictures to send to northern friends as evidence of southern justice”. But by the 1950s and 1960s, Mobile was seen as a model of progressivism; while black people did have to sit in the back of the bus, they did not have to give up their seat for a white person. Black residents in the 1980s, then, felt contempt for the Ku Klux Klan more than fear. But the murder of Michael Donald by the two young Klansmen came at a dangerous time, just as Robert Shelton, the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, was travelling the country, gathering supporters with the aim of revitalising the KKK.
Laurence Leamer, a seasoned biographer and journalist – he has written the lives of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Ingrid Bergman, Johnny Carson, the Kennedy men and women, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more – uses detailed interviews and courtroom documents to replicate the sense of immersive journalism. The particulars of the resulting trial are rich and fascinating: to send Hays to the electric chair, for instance, the prosecution had to charge that he’d used a pistol to steal the single dollar Donald had on his person, as well as the wallet itself, which was valued at $2.
But this trial occupies only the first third of the book. On June 14, 1984, civil rights lawyer Morris Dees filed a $10 million lawsuit against both the United Klans of America and individual Klansmen, including Shelton in his capacity as leader – a lawsuit that ended up bankrupting the organisation after the jury awarded $7 million in damages in 1987. Showing how we got from the Donald case to the end of the Ku Klux Klan is the author’s overall goal.
This second trial occurs in the last third of the book, and while the facts of the case are known, the proceedings are painted just as suspensefully.
More complex is the middle third, which moves skilfully back through the 20th century, tracing the development of the civil rights movement through to the death of Martin Luther King Jr, the point at which Dees (and Leamer) sees the movement shifting away from the streets and into the courtroom. This section takes the form of a tripled biography, focusing on Dees, Shelton, and George Wallace, the 45th governor of Alabama.
By the time Shelton is the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, the organisation is no longer the powerful and effective force founded by Confederate veterans in the 1860s, which had succeeded in creating mystery and terror through “quasi-mystical language and strange, unique rituals”.
Instead, Shelton is painted as both a figurehead at the end of a movement and one whose social and political powers were dangerously fitted to the 20th century; the book sets out how Wallace, a segregationist, at once protected Shelton and held him at a careful remove.
We also see Dees go from being a student of Wallace’s to co-founding the Southern Poverty Law Centre, and eventually taking the Klan to court on behalf of Donald’s family. A more profound ideological shift than this is difficult to imagine.
Many times Leamer identifies links between the Klan and the Third Reich, both in the social composition of the two groups and in the symbols they deploy. It can be frustrating to have connections such as these alluded to but not thoroughly explored. Then again, you can’t talk about the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century without talking about pretty much everything: not just race and the law, but also communism, religion, the FBI, state power, incarceration, the media and sexuality. The number of ideas that must intersect to make sense of these events, social shifts and characters is stunning, and Leamer does an excellent job of showing how they fit together.
I wished especially for more space to explore the psychology of those characters – not just the big-picture people, such as Dees, Shelton and Wallace, but the people who must live on the canvas painted by people such as them. Leamer explains that Hays and Knowles “had beaten up black and gay men in the past”, their behaviours had escalated, “and it seemed only natural for them to kill a black man to prove their Klan manhood”. Yes, except it is not natural.
For Leamer, the Klan in the 20th century is “an empire largely of lowlife misfits”, many of whom “lived on the fringes of society, and some were sociopaths”. But how does a misfit move from a sense of fringe-dwelling to hatred of a whole race, and how then does he move from hating a race to enacting ritualised violence? The leaps seem impossibly huge, but then, horrifically, people like Michael Donald really do die, and people like Hays and Knowles really do murder them. CR
HarperCollins, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Laurence Leamer, The Lynching ". Subscribe here.