Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Remembering Michael Donald

 “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

In college, my last course taken was American History. As a part of an assignment the professor asked us to go to the website  and share our feelings as well as reply to his questions for the online discussion.

I was horrified at what I saw!! But as I read on, I learned that the exhibition of postcards showing lynchings that were on display were there as proof, evidence, as a way to educate the ignorant or the uninformed or, the general public about the atrocities in our culture where some society members have been victims, some have been perpetrators and others silent spectators.

Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America is organized by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center through the ownership of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

As a founding member of the Teaching Tolerance Program, I am a strong believer in civil rights. Naturally seeing these post cards broke my heart and made me want to scream out at mankind. I made this video below this post which is less than 8 minutes but I hope you will watch it. I did so in order to remind others that history is filled with very real horrors.

In my history class at the university, I was shocked and nonplussed to find out that there were several students who stated that they believed that lynchings NEVER HAPPENED! One student wrote on the discussion online, were a myth! Oh- for that reason alone, I feel these images, although horrifying, are important as this was American History!

I agree with Congressman John Lewis,  who wrote in the introduction to the book Without Sanctuary,
Many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe-don't want to believe-that such atrocities happened in America not so very long ago. These photographs bear witness.... to an American holocaust.

Many people that I speak to are not aware that there was a modern-day lynching in Mobile, AL back in the 1980s. But as a young girl, I remember reading in the local paper what happened to an innocent young black man named Michael Donald. The knowledge of Michael being lynched shocked many Mobilians, but it confirmed reality for those who knew that the KKK was alive and kicking in our state of Alabama. The pain of Michael's death never dulled. The memory never escaped my mind.

While being aware of racial discrimination and hatred towards people of color, Michael's death may have served as the motivating factor for my becoming involved with civil-rights activism. But my efforts could never turn back the clocks, nor bring Michael back home.

In 1981 there was a trial in Alabama involving an African American who was accused of killing a white policeman. At the end of the case the jury was unable to reach a verdict. This infuriated  members of the Ku Klux Klan who believed that the reason for this was that some members of the jury were African Americans.

At a meeting held after the trial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest ranking official in the Klan in Alabama said: "If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man."

On Saturday 21st March, 1981, Bennie Hays's son, Henry Hays, and James Knowles, decided they would get revenge for the failure of the courts to convict the man for killing a policeman. They travelled around Mobile in their car until they found any black man; they chose nineteen year old Michael Donald.

The Klansman selected Michael Donald at random and they later killed and lynched him to show Klan strength and to scare Blacks from serving on juries.

Michael was walking to a near by convenient store when he was abducted from a Mobile street and driven to a remote area off Highway 225 on March 20, 1981 where he was beaten unconscious with a tree limb.

The two men then took Michael Donald's body back to Mobile where they slipped a rope around his neck and strangled him. Hays slashed Donald's throat three times to make sure he was dead. He was hanged in a tree, lynched, on Herdon Avenue in downtown Mobile.

A brief investigation took place and eventually the local police claimed that Michael Donald had been murdered as a result of a disagreement over a drugs deal. Michael Donald's mother, Beulah Mae Donald, who knew that her son was not involved with drugs, was determined to obtain justice. She contacted Jessie Jackson who came to Mobile and led a protest march about the failed police investigation.

Thomas Figures, the assistant United States attorney in Mobile, managed to persuade the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to look into the case. James Bodman was sent to Mobile and it was not long before James Knowles confessed to the killing of Michael Donald.

Hays and Knowles, admitted Klansmen, were found guilty of the murder/ lynching in 1984 and sentenced to death and life imprisonment respectively. A third man, Frank Cox, Hays' brother-in-law, was sentenced to 99 years in prison for providing the rope to hang Donald.

In 1984, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil suit on behalf of Donald's mother, Beulah Mae Donald, against the United Klans of America.

The case financially destroyed the United Klans in 1987 when the Tuscaloosa headquarters of the organization, at that time the nation's largest KKK group, was hit with a $7 million wrongful-death verdict. 1987 was the year I graduated high school from Murphy, the same school Michael had attended.

The verdict marked the end of the United Klans, the same group that had beaten the Freedom Riders in 1961, murdered civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in 1965 and bombed Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

Because the organization had nowhere near $7 million in assets, it filed for bankruptcy and deeded its $250,000 headquarters near Tuscaloosa to the 67-year-old Mrs. Donald.

Michael, who family members once described as "quiet and very dependable," had lived at home with his mother. Michael, who had worked the night shift in the mail room of the Mobile Press Register, wanted to be a brick mason and always promised to build his mother a home. All his mother wanted was for everyone to know he did not do anything to deserve what happened; the award money was not going to return her son.

In 2006 the street where Michael was lynched was re-named in his memory. I wish the memory of Michael's life and the way in which he died would change the hearts of those who have such arbitrary hatred towards people of color. We must not forget Michael. We must remember to never repeat history when it involves a historical shame.

Here is the video I made in memory of Michael Donald:

"Strange Fruit" began as a poem written in 1939 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published it under the pen name Lewis Allan. Meeropol and his wife later adopted Robert and Michael, sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage and executed by the United States

In 1937 Meeropol saw a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Meeropol later recalled how the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired the writing of the poem, Strange Fruit. The poem was published the poem in the New York Teacher and later, the Marxist journal, New Masses.

After seeing Billie Holiday perform at the club, Café Society, in New York City, Meeropol showed her the poem. Holiday liked it and after working on it with Sonny White turned the poem into the song, 
Strange Fruit. The record made it to No. 16 on the charts in July 1939. However, the song was denounced by Time Magazine as "a prime piece of musical propaganda" for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). 

Today, many of us think of "Strange Fruit" as a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday. It condemned American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans that had occurred chiefly in the South but also in all other regions of the United States. Holiday's version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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