The long list of America's civil rights icons includes a string of instantly recognizable names; presidents and preachers; a 14-year-old boy in the wrong place at the very worst of times; and a determined bus rider who refused to yield.
Beulah Mae Donald may not be among those heroes who immediately come to mind. She may not come to mind at all. But through the most unthinkable of tragedies, with a courage drawn from her faith and an unwavering search for the truth, Beulah Mae Donald has earned her place. Few have endured so much pain, few have given so much, to further the cause.
"She never rested until her mission was accomplished," says John Giggie, a history professor at the University of Alabama and the director of the school's Summersell Center for the Study of the South, "which was to make Mobile, to make the Deep South, to make America see her son, see his assailants and not forget."
A Mother's Pain, A Nation's Stain
Early in the morning of a late-March day in 1981, Beulah Mae Donald was in her Mobile home, waiting for Michael, the youngest of her seven children, to return home. By dawn, after suffering through a nightmare that shook her awake, he still hadn't arrived.
A little before 7 that morning, the phone rang into the early morning silence. A woman told Beulah Mae that her son's wallet had been found; it was a sign that Beulah Mae, in the strain of the moment after a worry-filled night, took to mean that Michael was alive and well somewhere.
''No, baby, they had a party here, and they killed your son,'' the caller reported, according to a 1987 account in The New York Times Magazine. ''You'd better send somebody over.''
Michael Donald, 19, was brutally murdered that evening, beaten badly with a tree limb, his throat slit and a noose with 13 loops pulled tightly around his neck. If all of that wasn't terrible enough, his body was hung from a tree on a neighborhood street just a few blocks from his house for all the world to see.
For the better part of a shameful century, lynchings were a constant fear for Blacks living in the Deep South. The Equal Justice Initiative, in "Lynching In America: Confronting The Legacy Of Racial Terror," has documented more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between the years of 1877 and 1950.
But this was 1981. No one had been lynched in America in more than 20 years. The killing of Michael Donald, brutal in both its execution and its brazenness, was stunning. It was sobering. It made news across the country.
"This [lynching] stands out as a reminder that, even despite the victories of the Civil Rights movement, white supremacy was far from being banished from America," Giggie says now. "It was perhaps the most visible and painful reminder that acts of racial terror were still part of the fabric of everyday life in the South and in America."
Convicting the Killers
Police in Mobile immediately suspected the Ku Klux Klan, which at that time had waning influence around the South but was still active. In fact, some members of the United Klans of America, once one of the biggest Klan groups in the country, watched from a porch across the street as police took down Michael Donald's body. A cross was set afire on the Mobile County courthouse lawn that night.
It took prosecutors some two years to finally bring Michael's killers to trial, and then only after a vocal Beulah Mae — upset further by a pseudo-investigation by local police that smeared the name of her son by suggesting his death was due to a drug deal gone bad — rallied local organizers and national activists like the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The FBI joined in and, after a stalled initial investigation, finally arrested two men for Michael's killing. Klan members Henry Hays and James "Tiger" Knowles, apparently angered by a jury's inability to convict a Black man for killing a white police officer in another high-profile case and spurred on by the local Klan to seek revenge, were convicted of killing Michael in 1983.
Hays was sentenced to death for the murder, Knowles to life in prison.
But Beulah Mae, still looking to clear her son's name, was not finished. With the urging and the help of the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Beulah Mae brought a civil suit in 1984.
Taking Down the Klan
The civil trial, which began in 1985, demanded that the Klan be held responsible for the actions of its members. The complaint, in which Beulah Mae was joined by several other plaintiffs, was sought on behalf of all Black citizens of Alabama who "seek the right to life free from harassment, intimidation, physical harm and death at the hands of members of the defendant United Klans of America solely because of the race of said black citizens."
The idea behind it was straightforward: Not only did Beulah Mae want to clear the name of her son, she wanted all who were part of it to be held accountable. "I wanted to know who all really killed my child," she said in 1988. "I wanted to be assured ... I wasn't even thinking about the money. If I hadn't gotten a cent, it wouldn't have mattered. I wanted to know how and why they did it."
In the suit, Beulah Mae and others alleged that the Klan killed Michael for two reasons: One was to "intimidate present and future jurors in Mobile County and Alabama from ruling in favor of black defendants charged with crimes against whites or in favor of black plaintiffs seeking to recover damages from whites, thereby denying black citizens the right to a fair and impartial trial."
Second, the defendants — the Klan — wanted to intimidate Blacks. From the allegations in the complaint:
Among those charged individually along with Hays, Knowles and the Klan: Hays' father, Bennie Jack Hays, a high-ranking official in the Klan; and Frank Cox, another Klan member and the man accused of supplying the rope around Michael's neck.
On Feb. 12, 1987, an all-white jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama found for Beulah Mae Donald and the plaintiffs and ordered the Klan and six individuals to pay damages in the amount of $7 million. That's $16 million in today's dollars.
The younger Henry Hays died in Alabama's electric chair in 1997 — against the wishes of the devoutly faithful Beulah Mae — at the age of 42, the first execution of a white person for crimes against a Black person in the state in more than 80 years. His father Jack Hays, because of evidence presented at the civil trial, was indicted for inciting the murder of Michael Donald. The elder Hays died before his trial was completed. Cox was later tried, found guilty and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Knowles, who tearfully apologized to Beulah Mae during the civil trial and testified against Hays and others, was released from prison in 2010.
The case essentially bankrupted the KKK. The Klan had to turn over its headquarters in Tuscaloosa to Beulah Mae after the verdict. Beulah Mae sold it and used the proceeds to buy a new home in a better neighborhood.
Beulah Mae Donald died in Mobile some 18 months after the verdict at the age of 67. But she is remembered now — when, indeed, she is remembered — as the article in The New York Times Magazine trumpeted her: "The Woman Who Beat the Klan." Her fight is now the topic of a four-part CNN Original Series "The People v. The Klan: The Untold Story of Beulah Mae Donald."
The most important part of her story, in these days of racial unrest, is the remembering.
"I remember after George Floyd's murder, some people were asking, 'Where did this come from, how could this happen?' Whereas other people, particularly Black Americans, were saying, 'This has been happening for a long, long time. This is just the most public setting, or capturing, of a tradition of injustice,'" says Giggie. "That disconnect between those who couldn't understand where it came from, and those that did, is in that gulf that I think modern America sometimes teeters."