The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan by Laurence Leamer

THE LYNCHING is a fascinating story of a determined lawyer bankrupting the Klan. This book is not actually about the criminal trial; rather, it's how attorney Morris Dees used a novel legal approach in a CIVIL trial to completely destroy the organization: "Dees hoped the amount would be so large that it would dramatically announce that the Klan could no longer commit violent acts against black people." As a side benefit of the civil trial, further criminal charges were later filed.

The terrible story begins in 1981, with the beating/strangulation, then lynching of an innocent young black man, Michael Donald. Klan members Henry Hays and James Knowles were looking for someone black--almost anyone--to use as an example. After the two young ne'er do wells committed the deed, they publicly displayed the body as a horrific example: They "knew the body had to hang high up so everyone could see it."

The two men were convicted, but Dees wanted to go beyond just convicting these two--he wanted to topple the entire Clan organization that had encouraged the violence: "Dees was convinced that the UKA could be sued directly for its role in the murder." In this case, the Klan was officially the "United Klans of America."

The ensuing civil trial, which set a powerful legal precedent, is officially known as, "Beulah Mae Donald, as Executor of the Estate of Michael Donald, Deceased v. United Klans of America." The trial tested an important concept: Can an organization be held accountable for criminal acts of its members? To succeed at court, Dees would have to cross several legal hurdles. For one thing, "Dees would have to show a pattern of violence involving the United Klans of America. In other words, he had to show a PATTERN of violence "instigated by prominent officials in the hierarchy."

So that's what Dees argued in the trial. He persuaded the jury that the Clan didn't merely dislike black people--it was a lot more than that: “We have a piece of evidence, I think, that’s going to convince you that this national organization did more than just espouse a racial philosophy; they actually encouraged their members to kill and lynch black people.”

Dees' opponents in the trial argued persuasively that one couldn't hold an organization responsible for just THINKING certain things. That's not the way the system is supposed to work, they told the jury: "In this country we don’t punish organizations. We don’t punish thought. It would be bad if we did.” With these two different theories of the law, it was not obvious how the trail would end.

In an astonishing turn, one of the defendants--one of the original two murderers--appealed to the jury during final arguments. A repentant Knowles pleaded for the jury to find against himself! And also make the Klan responsible: "Whatever judgment you decide, I do hope you decide a judgment against me and everyone else involved. Because you people need to understand this can’t happen. I do hope that you find a judgment against me and everyone involved. Because we are guilty.”

Knowles also publicly apologized to the mother of the slain man: "If could trade places with him, I would." Amazingly, Mrs. Donald graciously accepted Knowles plea: “I forgive you. From the day I found out who you all was, I asked God to take care of y’all, and He has.”

When the trial came to a close, the jury awarded plaintiff’s damages of seven million dollars. Of course, this award financially wiped out the organization--the Klan had nowhere near that sum. More than that, however, this trial set a precedent for legal strategy against other hate groups. This same strategy was "used by SPLC lawyers to cripple and destroy a dozen racist organizations, from the White Aryan Resistance in 1990 to the Imperial Klans of America in 2008."

All in all, I found THE LYNCHING to be an insightful look back into a dark era in American history. The events described here are a sad, but important part of our history. The outcome of this trial figured prominently in future cases against hate groups. I was not aware of the legal strategy used against the Klan by Mr. Dees.

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