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

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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Beaulah Mae Donald v. United Klans of America Inc. et al: 1987 - Klansmen Plot Racial Revenge Murder, Civil Suit Goes After Klan, Klan's Violent History Traced