A powerful account of how a Ku Klux Klan–sanctioned lynching in Mobile, Alabama, paved the way for legal victories against such hate groups.
Prolific journalist Leamer (The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption, 2013, etc.) ably re-creates this ugly flash point within a sprawling narrative about race relations and white supremacy’s gradual weakening, noting that even after the victories and bitterness of the 1960s, “the Klan had what appeared to be a legitimate place in Mobile life.” In 1981, young Klansmen randomly murdered 19-year-old African-American Michael Donald in retaliation for an unrelated shooting. After an initially botched investigation, the FBI and Justice Department oversaw the killers’ 1983 convictions. The prosecution attracted the attention of Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees, who then represented Donald’s family in a civil action against the United Klans of America, whose leaders first regarded it as “an aggravating, foolish lawsuit.” In the middle third of the book, Leamer uses Dees’ life as a lens, his growing devotion to legal activism contrasting with the massive resistance to civil rights embodied by his one-time mentor George Wallace, another key figure. While Dees was revolted by the Klan’s violence, writes the author, “for Wallace…race was simply a fantastic political issue that he intended to parlay as far as it would go.” By the time of the Donald murder, the Klan seemed diminished, yet Dees still faced threats as he built a case. Leamer develops incremental, disturbing portraits of the Klansmen, terming them “less a militant militia of white supremacist storm troopers than…a motley, disparate assembly of marginal men.” Concluding with a well-paced courtroom drama, the author captures the climactic improbability of Dees’ success, which bankrupted the UKA. Leamer confidently untangles the legal and social aspects of the story, showing how the South has grappled with the horrific legacy Donald’s murder represents.
An engrossing true-crime narrative and a pertinent reminder of the consequences of organized hatred.