Beaulah Mae Donald v. United Klans of America Inc. et al: 1987

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Beaulah Mae Donald v. United Klans of
America Inc. et al: 1987

Claimant: Beaulah Mae Donald
Defendants United Klans of America Inc., Robert M. Shelton, Henry Hayes, Bennie Jack Hays, Thaddeus Betancourt, Frank Cox, William O'Connor, Teddy Kyzar, James Knowles
Claim: That defendants were responsible for the murder of Michael Donald
Claimant's Lawyers: Morris Dees, Michael Figures
Chief Defense Lawyer: John Mays (UKA only)
Judge: Alex Howard
Place: Mobile, Alabama
Date of Trial: February 9-2, 1987
Verdict: In favor of claimant
Sentence: $7 million damages

SIGNIFICANCE: The Beaulah Mae Donald civil suit bankrupted the largest Ku Klux Klan faction in America, establishing an "agency theory" precedent used successfully in future lawsuits against hate groups.

On March 21, 1981, the mutilated body of Michael Donald was found hanging from a tree in Mobile, Alabama. Local and federal authorities were slow to conclude that the 19-year-old black student's murder was the Ku Klux Klan lynching it clearly resembled. After two FBI investigations of the killing, however, local members of the United Klans of America (UKA) began implicating each other before a grand jury. On June 16, 1983, James "Tiger" Knowles pleaded guilty to one count of violating Donald's civil rights, saving himself from a first-degree murder prosecution. Knowles confessed that he and Klansman Henry Hays had abducted Donald at gunpoint. The two Klansmen had driven the teenager to a secluded rural field where they beat and strangled him to death, cut his throat, and returned to Mobile to hang his body from a tree.

Klansmen Plot Racial Revenge Murder

While the felony to which Knowles confessed was a federal crime, the ensuing murder charge against Hays was prosecuted as a state crime. He pleaded innocent. During Hays' trial, Knowles testified that the killing was planned to avenge a white police officer killed after a Birmingham bank robbery. Knowles and Hays assumed that a predominantly black jury would not convict a black defendant in the Birmingham case. With the approval and assistance of Hays' father Bennie, Frank Cox, Thaddeus Betancourt, and Teddy Kyzarall members of the United Klans of AmericaKnowles and Hays planned to kill a randomly selected black person and burn a cross at the Mobile County Courthouse in a symbolic act of Klan strength. To establish alibis, the group threw a party the night the Birmingham case went to the jury. When news of a hung jury was announced on television, Knowles and Hayes slipped away and abducted Donald, whom they found walking alone on a dark street.

Knowles was sentenced to 10 years to life imprisonment for his part in the killing. Henry Hays was convicted of murder on December 10, 1983, and sentenced by the jury to life imprisonment without parole. The jury's sentence was overruled by Judge Braxton Kittrell Jr., who condemned Hays to be electrocuted, making him the second white man in Alabama history to be sentenced to death for killing a black victim.

Civil Suit Goes After Klan

Despite the sentences meted out to the killers, no charges stood against the klansmen who had helped them. The fact that all the plotters were UKA members seemed a legal opportunity to Morris Dees, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Dees convinced Beulah Mae Donald, Michael's mother, that a civil suit against the UKA would uncover the entire truth about her son's murder. Donald agreed to sue the corporate UKA, its leader "Imperial Wizard" Robert Shelton, and the Mobile Klansmen for $10 million in damages.

The suit was based on "agency theory," which holds that corporations are responsible for the deeds of employees acting according to the corporation's principles. Donald's attorneys attempted to prove that her son's death was not only the result of a conspiracy between the Mobile Klansmen, but also of their acting upon the UKA's violent policies through a semi-military chain of command.

When the Donald suit went to court on February 9, 1987, all of the defendants except Robert Shelton defended themselves. John Mays, the Imperial Wizard's lawyer, tried to distance Shelton and his organization from the Mobile Klansmen. Mays deplored Donald's murder as an "atrocity" and told the jury that there was no evidence whatsoever of his client or any other national officer of the UKA directly participating in the crime.

Dees responded with a copy of Fiery Cross, a Klan magazine containing a caricature of a lynched black man with the caption that "All whites should work to give the blacks what they deserve." When Shelton described the drawing as an objectionable mistake by a local editor, Dees made him read the publication's masthead, which listed Shelton as both editor and publisher. Shelton admitted that he had not retracted the cartoon's sentiments in the next issue.

Testimony traced the idea of a revenge killing to Mobile Klan leader Bennie Hays and detailed the contributions of his codefendants to the plot. "Tiger" Knowles testified about the UKA's command structure. Knowles admitted to Shelton's lawyer that Shelton himself had never ordered him to kill anyone, but added that Klan rules bound him to follow the orders of his superior Bennie Hays, who was answerable to Shelton. Knowles recalled discussing the plot with Henry and Bennie Hays. Dees asked what the Klansmen did when they heard of the mistrial in the Birmingham case.

"Well, Henry Hays and myself went and got Henry's car," Knowles replied. "We had the gun and the rope and we went out looking for a black person to hang." As Beaulah Mae Donald sobbed softly at the prosecution's table, Knowles retold the gruesome story of her son's death. Knowles recalled seeing the lynching drawing in Fiery Cross and interpreted it as both a message and an order.

When Dees called the individual members of Mobile's UKA, they implicated each other. William O'Connor and Bennie Hays accused each other of complicity in the plot. Teddy Kyzar recalled Bennie Hays threatening him with death if he spoke to police about the killing. Frank Cox, who was accused of providing the gun and the rope used to hang Donald, repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Cox's mother recalled her son, Knowles, and Henry Hays borrowing rope from her on the pretext of using it to tow Knowles' mother's car. Mrs. Knowles testified that there was nothing wrong with her car on the night of the Donald slaying.

Klan's Violent History Traced

Dees next concentrated on proving that violence was essential to the corporate philosophy of the UKA. He relied heavily on a deposition by Gary Thomas Rowe, a controversial government informer who had been present during the 1965 murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo. As well as detailing UKA sanctions of the Liuzzo killing and describing her murder on a Mississippi highway, Rowe's deposition illuminated Shelton's conspiracy with Birmingham police in 1961 attacks on Freedom Riders and the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist church. Rowe's damaging testimony went uncontested by Maysalthough invited, Shelton's attorney had not attended the taking of Rowe's deposition. Consequently, it was read into the trial record unchallenged.

To buttress Rowe's claims that the Klan was institutionally violent, Dees called Randy Ward, a former UKA member living in the federal witness protection program. Ward detailed his own violent past and recalled Shelton inspiring Klansmen with his exploits during attacks on civil rights volunteers in the 1960s. Ward also recalled a telephone conversation with Shelton, during which the Imperial Wizard told Ward that Klansmen implicated in shooting incidents would receive legal and financial aid.

At the end of the trial, the defendants offered no witnesses. In contrast to the lack of contrition among the other defendants, Knowles tearfully asked the jurors to return a guilty verdict and sought Mrs. Donald's forgiveness.

"Son," she replied, "I forgave you a long time ago."

The six members of the all-white jury ruled in favor of Donald, awarding her damages of $7 million. The decision effectively bankrupted the UKA, which mailed the deeds and keys to its property to Donald. Evidence unearthed during the trial resulted in murder charges against Frank Cox and Bennie Hays. Cox was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1989. Bennie Hays suffered a heart attack during his trial and died before he could be retried. Henry Hays continued to protest his innocence until his execution on June 6, 1997. Most significantly, the SPLC led by Morris Dees pursued civil suits in future murder and assault cases, dismantling hate groups through their bank accounts.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

"Alabamian Guilty in Killing of Black." New York Times (May 20, 1989): 33.

Dees, Morris. A Season for Justice. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1991.

Stanton, Bill. Klanwatch: Bringing the Klan to Justice. New York: Grove WVeidenfield, 1991.

"U.S. Jurors Award $7 Million Damages in Slaying by Klan." New York Times (February 13, 1987): Al.

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Beaulah Mae Donald v. United Klans of America Inc. et al: 1987

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