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How A 1981 Alabama Lynching Impacted The Battle Against The Klan

The cover of "The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan" by Laurence Leamer
The cover of "The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan" by Laurence Leamer

How A 1981 Alabama Lynching Impacted The Battle Against The Klan
How A 1981 Alabama Lynching Impacted The Battle Against The Klan GUEST: Laurence Leamer, author, "The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan"

Religion fall back. His organization the White Aryan resistance was on the break of spreading across the nation. Then, two people inspired by the group killed the black man and Oregon. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the group for inciting the death, financially destroying Tom Metzger and his group. This was not the first time the Southern Poverty Law Center used a civil lawsuit to fight racism, back in 1981, after the stabbing and lynching of Michael Donald, the tactic was used to bankrupt the Ku Klux Klan. The story is told in the new book, the "The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan" , the author joins me now. Laurence Leamer. The two Klansmen involved in the Marco -- murder of Michael Donald were convicted. Why did these want to bring a civil suit? These felt that the two killers, one was only ¬17 old, the other Henry Hayes was 26 years old. They were followers. They were led to this by the violent philosophy of the Klan. And the United clans of America. It was the biggest in the America. Robert Sheldon was the leader, he was the one that promoted this violence. He was careful in what he said, he had not been convicted for any violent raging's, but more sought he was a chance. A new legal theory it was and hold the Klan responsible for what their members do, we can change the nature of racism. Morris Dees needed to show that Klan had a pattern. When he followed -- filed this lawsuit, Michael Donald was a 19-year-old black man murdered and plucked off the street of mobile and taken out into the woods and hung. The hanging rope was put around his neck and he was strangled and then his throat slashed. Morris was in the cool -- courtroom for the trial. He had to find a pattern, the pattern began with James Rowe, an undercover FBI agent. He'd been in the car, at the time of the Selma march in 1965, when the group of Klansmen shot and killed à la Losey -- a white woman in the car with a young black man. He then gave deposition saying that Robert Sheldon had told him to go out and do what must be done. Robert Sheldon was issued man, he wasn't going to tell them explicitly to kill someone. He said do what must be done and the Klansmen knew what this meant. This idea of culpability by incitement, the idea that this lawsuit was based on, it was a new theory in law. Was difficult to prove? Why hadn't of been tried before? It was not only difficult to try, Morris Dees brought down five very bright lawyers, to do these civil right legal battles. They didn't like this, the white supremacist threatened to kill them, they firebombed the offices. There had to be security, this troubled them and they thought the lawsuit was absurd. They told Morris that they didn't want to do this. They all quit, because they thought it would never work out. The book is divided into three sections. The first few tell the story of this Michael Donald. The second is about the civil trial in the third you talk about the personalities and power especially attorney Morris Dees, he vault from a segregationist into this fighter for equal and civil rights. What changed him? He began as a segregationist and everybody in the South was a segregationist. Very few walked away from that ideology. In 1958, when he was a student at the University of Alabama, he took a semester to be George Wallace is student campaign manager. Three years later he was a young like -- lawyer, Morris Dees was the attorney for the man who led the Klan and bludgeoning freedom riders in Montgomery. At the end of that trial, one of the freedom riders came up to Morrison said how can you do this, from then on Morris became to change -- began to change. The five attorneys that he brought in, said it was unwinnable. It must've been a surprise that Dees won the lawsuit in the Donald case. It was a surprise to the Klan lawyer , he thought this was ridiculous. It wouldn't work out in the courtroom. It did for several reasons, one reason was James Tiger Knowles, one of the two killers who is serving life Sitton -- sentence in Minnesota he testified. He is a strange person he testified in a nonemotional way, detached, as if he had nothing to do with it. His words were chilling when he told how they pick the Sandman up and killed him. At the end of the trial, when the final stages were being made, Tiger's asked to testify. Most lawyers would've said no, you've already spoken. Morris was a man of instincts, and he said okay. Tiger got before the jury and was a different person. He was contrite, the mother of the murdered man was sitting in the front row and he said Mrs. Donald I'm so sorry. We deserve to be punished in every way, we must be punished. Mrs. Donald looked at him and said, I forgive you son. Everyone in that room was crying, including the judge. Finally, the clan and Tom Metzger were left bankrupt, after lawsuits by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It did not wipe out racism. What impact of these lawsuits had? The impact is, we don't have these organizations any longer. Racism has taken a different path. I can see, a interviewed one of the killer, Tiger Knowles, I knocked on the doors of these Klansmen and countryside and talk to many member. They are pathetic characters. There this alienated underclass in America. They don't have church memberships. They don't belong to the unions any longer. They're not part of social organizations. They find in racism, a kind of identification. They found it in the Klan, now they find it on the Internet . They are dangerous and scary, and part, it's something we will have to deal with in the future. I've been speaking with Laurence Leamer, author of "The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan" . Thank you very much.

In 1981, an almost all-black jury failed to convict a black man accused of murdering a white police officer in Alabama. Incensed at the verdict, two members of the United Klans of America looked for a black man to kill in retaliation. They found one: 19-year-old Michael Donald, whom they tortured and eventually hanged from a tree.

It was the first lynching in the U.S. in more than 25 years, according to Laurence Leamer. He's detailed the case in a new book, “The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battles That Brought Down the Klan.”


Leamer describes how Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees used Donald's murder to bankrupt the United Klans of America. Dees sued the Klan, arguing the organization was responsible for inciting its members.

"(Donald's killers) were followers and they were led to this by the violent philosophy of the Klan," Leamer said.

Leamer joins KPBS Midday Edition Wednesday to discuss his book.