THE LYNCHING: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan (William Morrow Hardcover) is an exciting and impressive read, a page turner that is also a history of a pivotal event in the Civil Rights struggle. As a Northerner, the Southern attachment to slavery and later segregation, as part of "traditional values" has always been a personal disconnect. I once publicized Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan by Daryl Davis, a Grammy award winning musician, who risked his life on a mission to understand hate. Were these people monsters or would he find a common humanity? Davis found shared ground but didn't address the origins of hate crimes.
In Laurence Leamer's THE LYNCHING, racial hatred is explained in the context of the personal histories of those involved in a horrific hate crime in 1981, when Jim Crow was a fading memory. The incident was sparked by a trial of a black man accused of murdering a white Police Sergeant from Birmingham, Alabama. An almost all black jury (1 white) could not reach a verdict, the match that set off Alabama's (UKA), United Klans of America, retribution. Two small-time Klansman Henry Hays and James Knowles, set out to find a black man to kill. Lynching often went unpunished in the South, where police were often Klan sympathetizers. The Klansmen cruised around before deciding on 19 year old Michael Donald. He was tortured and hung from a tree on the residential street where Henry's father, Benny, head of the local Klan, owned a house.
The photos of the corpse are shocking. A chance photo also captured Hays and Knowles in a group lounging on a car. From this beginning, Leamer explains the cultural roots of hate crimes, through the histories of these men and their Klan. Hate didn't take much to provoke, when being white or well born, didn't mean you had a viable future. And "uppity" northern blacks in the struggle for Civil Rights, were making their way south. Soon blacks wouldn't sit in the back of the bus, eat at colored lunch counters or use separate restrooms. There was fear and resentment at blacks taking white jobs and places in public universities. Segregation was equated with "traditional Southern values," a righteous cause for Shelton, head of the United Klans of America and Congressional up and comer, George Wallace. Crowds of Shelton's supporters were mesmerized by Wallace's honed hate rhetoric, which sent him to the Governor's mansion. Never would a black enter Univ. of Alabama. He would physically block that doorway! And the first one to try to enter that University, was confronted by such hatred, she had to withdraw.
Morris Dees, a poor sharecroppers son, grew up with a sense of injustice that propelled him to law school. He started out a segregationist, like most southerners, even briefly worked for Wallace. But as he was jostled from the sidelines to center of a Civil Rights Demonstration, he had to become involved. A mail-order millionaire by the time he graduated college, Dees used his money to found The Southern Poverty Law Center. Though he became a Pariah in his town and family, Dees continued to take on Civil Rights cases at no charge.
After the criminal trial that sentenced Hays and Knowles for Donald's murder, Dees filed a civil suit on the behalf of Donald's mother. His objective was to charge those responsible for giving the order, as well as creating an environment where hate speech encouraged violence. Dees sued Benny Hays, the local Klan authority, and Shelton, the national leader and was told he could not win by colleagues, a skeptical judge. Even his staff thought he had overreached. Before it was over, he narrowly escaped with his life. What happened in this case, was a major breakthrough for Civil Rights.
The scope of the U.K.A.'s activities under the Imperial Wizard, included the infamous bombing of a Birmingham Church and the death of four black girls. The story of how the evidence and intelligence was gathered reflects the tenacious work and intuitive genius of Dee and his staff. In the end, he got his Klan crippling $7 million judgment from a jury who had moved into a desegregated future. The most crucial element was a legal precedent that organizations that promote hatred and violence can be held responsible for the criminal actions of their members.
The SPLC lawyers were able to use this to cripple racist organizations from the White Ayran Resistance in 1990 to the Imperial Klans of America in 2008. Read this book in our time,when hate's got big audiences again and Black Lives Matter are on the march. Those who don't know history may be doomed to repeat it, but it never appears in the same form. This book gives a start of recognition. The attractions of hate rhetoric today follow very similar patterns.