tv The People v. The Klan CNN April 11, 2021 9:00pm-10:00pm PDT
the body of a black man has been found hanging from a tree in mobile, alabama. >> lynching is a tool to control and oppress black people. >> racialized violence is as old as the constitution. >> plans are not running around with white sheets over their head, but it's still happening. >> today people are horrify to have had police. >> what do we want? >> justice! >> it's the modern day lynching. >> what are we going to do about it? we move forward with people
deciding i'm bold enough and i'm going make it change. >> beulah mae donald took on one of the most violent criminal organizations in the united states. >> this is an incredible story of courage. >> the body of a black man has been found hanging from a tree in mobile, alabama. >> living in mobile was a quiet town. it is nothing but oak trees. but after march 1981, it was kind of like creepy to me to look at the trees.
the hurt is still there. the hurt my mom went through. i just visualize her face and i go like -- i can't talk about it today. my momma, beulah mae donald was a quiet woman. she was a good-hearted person. all the neighborhoods we have lived in, everybody loved her. >> ms. donald was a very liked person because of her personality. she volunteered her time working with children, a model mother. >> michael was my brother. michael was well loved. he was quiet. he worked at night and he kept my oldest son during the daytime. >> michael was a well-mannered and a polite young man.
michael is a true example that hard work pays off. >> the housing project we lived in, everybody knew each other, and this family cooked, we ate from them. and if my mom cooked, they ate from us. there was gang stuff back then, but we didn't get involved in it. my mom was always sitting on the front porch waiting or us to arrive home from school. >> if he came home and i was lying down, he'll do little things to help. that's the kind of boy he was. >> we didn't know nothing of the world and what the world was doing out there. we just knew we lived in the housing project, but we could not venture away from home. we had to be always where she could call us. people call us sheltered. i call it living a good life.
we were all gathered at my older sister's house, betty and we would all sit around on friday night because she lived around the corner from my mom. and so my niece vanessa said "i need some cigarettes." mike said "i'll walk up there and get them." >> he said he needed cigarette so he went into the service station. he left and never did come. so we thought he was at home. >> it got to be later on that night, and he never came back. vanessa, she say he took my money and went home. he probably did. she said i'm going to get him. we started laughing. yeah, you get him. everyone assuming he gone home to my mom. >> as a woman of profound faith, beulah mae donald had not a dream but a vision. in her vision she saw her son in a casket.
>> in my vision, my body rolling in front of my living room and lay there. a brown-skinned man in a gray casket. i couldn't tell who he was. but when i woke up i -- i was straight and that's when i began to call my children. the next morning she called and said she had not seen him all night. and i say "you haven't?" and she say "no." >> friends called and said look, you need to come over here. they got a black man hanging from a tree over here. >> we were just -- what, are you serious?
>> maybe you can tell whether it's true or not, that a black man was found in the tree. >> i was advised if anybody was talking to me, i was supposed to talk to a supervisor. >> all right. >> beautiful spring morning, temperatures, high 50s and low 60s at daylight. i am coming in at spring hill avenue. i hear a couple of transmission over the police radio. it was actually called in by the first reporting patrol officer as one dead. >> thank you so much. >> no black man ever -- i told them.
>> on the way down there, what was going through my mind was trying to anticipate what i was going to find. and most importantly what if any witnesses were going to be there. and then there was another part of me that said, "whatever you see, don't let your emotions get into the way of what you got to do." >> i thought i was one of those people that can handle most of anything as long as i have my faculties, that picture and morning will be etched in my mind forever . and then the police department got a call about a wallet found in a dumpster. then that's when we found an id card identifying the young man
as michael anthony donald. >> that morning one of my cousins called and said "they believe is michael." it is him. that's all i could say is "it's him." i was just numbed, i could not believe this was happening to us and i looked outside. my mom's door, and it was people everywhere, i mean everywhere in the neighborhood. they had come from far and near. my sister cynthia hamilton, she went to identify the body with my husband. >> all he had done was left my his mom's house that night to walk to the service station to buy a pack of cigarettes. not knowing what was waiting for him.
i can only imagine what mrs. donald went through. >> the crowd just gathered. people started gathering there. we jumped in the car. >> senator michael figures was the de facto leader of the black community. as a lawyer, michael was there to gather facts. >> we start looking around and trying to talk to people to see anybody knew exactly what happened, who was involved. someone has taken a young man hung him in a tree. who would do something this hideous in the community? >> what's going through my mind is who the hell did this and why?
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>> mobile, alabama. >> 19-year-old michael donald was brutally beaten and hanged. >> the lynching of teenager michael donald. >> face beaten, mangled hands. >> the apparent lynching of a teenager in mobile, alabama has echoes of the long forgotten murder of emmett till. >> the brutal lynching of emmett till, one of the most barbaric atrocities committed against a child in the history of mankind.
>> emmett was our guardian. he was a jokester. he pulled all kinds of pranks. he was a typical 14-year-old. >> 30 days ago, i was very busy getting emmett to go away on a trip that i thought would be the highlight of his 14 years. but my baby was taken from his uncle's home and his aunt's home, and i found out about it 9:30 sunday morning. >> the only thing they did wrong in the eyes of society is that they were born black boys. they were innocent. they were going about life trying to get their education. they weren't committing any crimes. they were killed because of the color of their skin. >> i didn't want this to happen to nobody else's child like
mine. you don't know the agonies until you go through it. >> i remember going to mrs. donald's apartment. there was no anger expressed no bitterness. it was just go out and do what you've got to do. >> we do not have a suspect. we do not have a motive. we are gathering facts. >> michael, he was at his sister's house watching a basketball game. >> michael donald was last seen at 11:00 friday night here. the home of his aunt's. >> at 11:00 p.m., he had some conversation with his sister. he said i have a dollar. i'm going get a pack of cigarettes, and he was headed to a service station that was just a few blocks away. that was the last time he was seen. nobody saw anything. nobody heard anything. we just started investigating everything we could. the midnight shift officers had
discovered the body started relating all of the incidents that occurred throughout the night. there was an issue with a taxi driver that would not respond to his dispatchers. he was last reported on herndon avenue. someone burned a small cross at the back of the courthouse downtown during the early part of the night and then a domestic squabble had actually occurred over on dolphin street, which is three blocks away. there were three male subjects involved. ralph eugene hayes and jimmy and johnny edgar. mr. hayes had failed to come home from work that evening. hayes lived at 115 herndon avenue. simply because of the proximity, we obtained permission to search, and that was when we found a gun, a knife, a picture of a hangman's noose hanging in
a tree. we brought them to police headquarters downtown and questioned them, and then all of the sudden, a character surfaced by the name of johnny ray kelly. mr. kelly said on friday night he was five blocks west of herndon avenue on springhill, and he said i was standing out here and up walked jimmy, johnny and ralph. >> kelly claimed that he observed blood on ralph hayes' clothes. ralph told them that he had, quote, jumped a black dude. >> and ralph has a spot of blood this big on his t-shirt. and one of the edgar boys is literally cleaning blood out from under his fingernails with a pocket knife. this was evidence that was piling up. so four days later, we arrested
and charged them for the murder of michael donald. we have them in jail. we're starting to pick up pieces here and there. we determine there had been a burglary that occurred at the end of herndon avenue. when we finally figured out who the burglar was, he admits that he saw two guys fighting with a black guy at the tree. they weren't fighting. they were trying to get his body lifted up to get him hung into the tree. but you can't put a burglar on the witness stand and expect a jury to believe him. the biggest issue that came up during the investigation was that information that was coming in was coming from every direction. mobile had a fairly significant
late night street population talking about drug addicts. >> the detectives was trying to see was it something tied in with drugs, and they want know was he involved in anything like that. and i go like no. he wasn't. >> this is assumption of black criminality when it comes to black victims. what happens is a postmortem character assassination. instead of investigating the perpetrators of a crime, recriminalize the victim. and this is a pattern that we saw with trayvon martin, what we saw with george floyd, and what we saw with sandra bland. we say with this mamie till, who had to defend her 14-year-old
child's reputation, and eric garner's mother having to defend her son.14-year-old child's rep and eric garner's mother having to defend her son. who simply did not want to be harassed. >> they want to assassinate our child twice. they want to kill them on the street and then assassinate their character. so we have to get out there and say no, you're wrong. let me tell you who my child was. >> michael donald was an innocent good samaritan. not a thug. >> so we obtained permission to search michael's room, and basically found nothing in his bedroom. >> we knew the kind of young man he was. we knew the kind of family he had. some people were trying to say we don't think it's an issue that has anything to do with violation of civil rights. we don't think it has anything
to do with race. we think it was some drug deal that went bad or something. we knew that wasn't the case. you could not convince anybody in the black community. >> so we had to live and walk through it. because we knew that he was just an innocent person. he was innocent this. they tried to deviate from the truth to take the attention from what really happened. now, defined brows... up to 36 hours. waterproof. smudge-resistant. power-packed pigments. new tattoo studio brow pencil. only from maybelline new york.
♪ the funeral people came over and the lady held my mom hand, and she said "i don't think you want to open him up." >> just the idea they took him and hung him. just hung him up. they beat him unmercifully. i didn't even know what he looked like as my child. the undertaker didn't want me to see where they'd made a footprint on his face with their boots. >> the casket was open. the sight was horrible, but mrs. donald, as did the mother of emmett till, wanted the world to
see what they had done to her son. >> at this door, the negro murdered child emmett till is said to have whistled at roy bryant's wife. >> he went into the store to buy some candy. allegedly they said that he got fresh and whistled with carolyn bryant at the time. as they saw it, disrespecting a white woman. emmett stuttered, so his mom taught him to whistle to break the stutter so he could get his words out. she often wondered if that had something to do with his untimely death. >> the state alleges emmett till was abducted and murdered by roy bryant and jay w. milam. >> sunday morning about 2:30, someone call at the door and say
i wants to borrow. >> not only did they beat hill, they had shot him in the head. and the body came back. it was in four boxes. the coffin could not be opened. his mother being the woman she was, she said you all won't open it? give me a crowbar. i'm going to open this casket. the reaction of the adults in the family, the pain, the hurt, the screaming, the yelling, i was 7. i'm 72 now, and i still cry. >> you think about emmett tills' mother deciding to van open casket so the world can see what they did to her child which meant that she had to see what the world did to her child. >> i think that ms. donald had some reflections back remembering the courage and the
spirit of emmett's mother, because she wants the world to know this is still occurring 30 years later. >> i just want to say -- >> amen. >> michael donald, i'll see you again, i know i will. >> at that time of the funeral nobody really could explain why it happened. all kinds of things running through our minds. we didn't rule out the police hunt because of what already happened. i knew webb and i knew what the reputation was, what he did. reputation was on some things he did earlier in his career. >> there was an incident that occurred some years earlier
before here in mobile. >> police officers stopped us and engaged us, what were we doing in the neighborhood? we thought we had car trouble. and one thing led to another. >> i was there when the incident started. a robbery suspect was apprehended named glenn diamond. >> i was revolutionary in the neighborhood. my name come up, everybody want to get this guy here because i always protested police mistreating black people. things got heated. they bust me on the head and beat me pretty good. >> he was handcuffed and at that time i got a call to go to another situation at the greyhound bus station. >> when backup got there, they were hurling racial insults, saying feed nigger baby to the
alligators. in about a minute, somebody came back with a rope. apparently they had been riding around with the noose in the car. so when the guy game, the noose was already in the rope. they just through it in the tree when they brought it back and put it around my neck. >> and officer patch began to pull the rope and pull it and choke me enough to pull me up to my toes. >> local officials called it a sick prank. >> the guy who put the rope around my neck, he confessed on the witness stand. yeah, i did it, your honor. but i wasn't trying to hang him. i was just trying to scare him. >> in the middle of the glenn diamond case, robert shelton, at that time the most powerful klan m member in america, came down to meet with the police commissioner for the sole purpose to show the police that
the klan have their back. >> did robert shelton's family come down and get a photo from somebody at the station after the mob lynching was in the paper? >> that strictly -- that never happened. >> there were five officers that is were indicted. well, i was suspended on april the 15th of 1976, and i was off work until november 29th. the charges against me were thrown out because i wasn't even there. >> webber wasn't one of the main culprits that night. but overall, when it came down to the relationship with the black community, it was always hostile. >> ida b. wells once said "the ones who write the report commits the murder." even when other officers know
that something someone is doing within the department is wrong, there is such a wall of silence. the blue wall is what we call it. >> michael was the lawyer for glenn diamond, and later michael donald. and he just knew that that was the lay of the land, that there was racism on every level, and it needed to be fought. >> we are calling on mobile's black community to be as cool as possible in response to this murder. but at the same time, we are urging them to exercise due caution and to take all necessary steps to secure their person, families and property. >> not going to tolerate this. we thought the cops and the klan working hand to hand. >> we are doing a vigorous investigation looking for actual facts of what took place. he wasn't trusted to do that. >> that morning, senator michael
figures showed up there. i knew what his attitude was going to be. this is not right. you were involved in the glern dymond hanging and now here you are the main investigator of this case. >> and maybe in their minds thought i was a klan sympathizer. the look of it was absolutely wrong. there was no collusion on our point. you cannot imagine the immense amount of pressure that was on the police department. and i think that fact caused the investigation to go like it did. >> there came a point in time when the likely suspects were identified, and then the person who lived in the neighborhood came forward and changed the entire case. >> well, in essence, johnny ray kelly was lying.
springhill avenue. we come to find out, he was facing burglary charges. he was looking for help. but i suspect he was manipulated by somebody else. >> we originally arrested the wrong people, and that's on me. that was my mistake. i went into a courtroom and moved to have the charges dismissed against them. i wanted to make sure that the black community thunderstood th we were doing all that we could. that i cared deeply about. but i wasn't communicating with civic leaders either in the black or the white communities. and there were two separate communities.
>> it was really depressing. it was really -- it was really -- you couldn't eat, you couldn't think of nothing else because our life had just come to a stand still. the mobile police department, they sat on it. and they would just call and say we hadn't forgotten you, ms. donald. we're still working on the case. okay. do something about it. >> michael figures was mrs. donald's attorney. he went there to express his condolences and to offer his help in any way that he could and to let her know that he would not rest until the case was resolved and justice brought for her son. >> my father was one of the first african american students to attend university of alabama's law school, becoming the first black lawyers to be educated in the state of alabama. >> we would go to michael figures' office and talk to him.
well, what do you want to do? that was what when was telling my mom. what do you want to do? >> this is something that's understood by all black americans. no matter where you lived or how you lived, you understood that law enforcement had never been created honestly to protect you. it was created in order to protect white america, often from you. >> here stands the tallahatchie county courthouse in mississippi. >> it was a mockery that they made out of it because someone black was bringing someone white to trial. >> this small, sleepy cotton community has been overrun with excitement as the trial begins. >> it was more like going to a baseball gym or something. they have their beer and they popcorn and they had their kids. it was a circus is what it was. >> the all white male jury deliberated for nearly an hour
before announcing the verdict -- not guilty. >> the whole trial was just a farce. the verdict was the one that i had expected to be given. >> did you expect this verdict? >> it's what i was hoping for. >> so at this point she went into combat. she went into battle to get some kind of justice for what they had done to her only child. >> just anything, just any excuse to put these two men, and a acquittal when people a signal living rooming is now back in order. >> she was very stern and she was very strong and she was very dedicate and she was not scared. >> i believe that the whole united states is mourning with me. for him to have died a hero would mean to me than for him to just have died. >> the picture of that boy whose picture you see there does not
diane inconspicuous death, and that his case will be remembered and something will be done about it. >> we think of mamie till, the courageous black mother of emmett till. and the courage of beulah mae donald, who was unrelenting in trying to get justice for her son is part of a tradition of black women and black mothers in particular who have fought to get their children's death vindicated, but have often been ignored. >> we want them to go to jail just like we would go to jail for 25 or life. >> my son said he couldn't breathe 11 times. 11 times he said he couldn't breathe. and they chose not to indict. where is the justice? >> these women and their contributions to civil rights history should never be
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mae donald and her teenager micm teenager michael figures enlist the voice of the reverend jesse jackson, the future presidential candidate to come to mobile and tell their story and put it on a national stage. >> miss beulah had no fair. she wanted to see those who kill her son come to justice. i was impressed with the resilience to fight back. >> one of the most feared names around here in alabama. they say a country preacher was coming to town, my wife got upset, let me tell you. so when jesse came here, it brought national attention to our issue. >> michael called me. we went to major demonstration to put visibility on it. i got there, and people were just wanting to do something. >> eventually there was a march
that was led by my husband michael, and the reverend jesse jackson came down. so it was a big deal, and it wasn't just in the city of mobile, but it went around this nation. mobile was just moving too slow. >> that's why we kept marching and protesting, letting them know we weren't going to take this lying down. y'all got to move, you got to move fast. you got to move and move fast. that was our thrust to them. you got to move and you got move fast. >> a lot of the community started coming to my mom's house and we just need to do something. some of the guys we need to get somebody, kill them too. so they were getting really angry. they were really getting frustrated. ish everybody was uneased. everybody was at a point where
we got to do something about this. why are we living here with these type things taking place right in the middle of our community? the bottom line was the community was really about to explode. we weren't getting what we considered to be all the facts from the local media during that time. >> the stories that would appear in the mobile press register, which was the daily white newspaper in the city of mobile at the time, would blast black officials. >> we thought it was necessary for the other side to be told. >> michael and a group of his friends started a weekly newspaper called "the new times." one of the reasons that newspaper was started was so
that it could tell the story from the black person's perspective. >> "the new times" is literally doing the work that jet magazine did back in 1955. >> jet magazine was like black twitter of the moment. >> emmett till's picture catalyzed the movement because these lynching images have the effect of literally traumatizing people. in the same way, "the new times" took on the responsibility of reporting, investigating and pressing the case on behalf of michael donald. this precipitated the anger, the outrage, the fear of the klan. >> the klan actually called "the new times" office and requested a subscription to the paper. that was one of their moves in terms of keeping a constant
threat to say, you know, we're going to come and get you. and michael did not back down. on the morning of march 21st, 1981, michael went down to see for himself what was going on, and he took pictures of every body at the scene that he could. >> there were a group of people right across the street from where it took place, and these guys was just sitting there, smoking cigarettes, talking like it was just a normal day. that's one of the things that caused michael to take so many pictures of them. he was just wondering how they could just stand there nonchalantly. and we had no idea who they were. >> it turned out he took pictures of the klan.
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>> we were over at the body making some notes about the condition and whatever. and i looked, and i see benny jack hayes, who is the person that owned the property and was the local -- and i don't know what the rank is, what his position was, some cyclops, a grand titan, or some klan-related rank that he held. he was very volatile, very angry, very strange behavior. >> benny hayes was a paradox, grandfatherly with a cane but capable of sudden outbursts of anger. >> bennie jack was a terrible man, and i don't like speaking ill of the dead, but he was pure evil. >> and he was coming up herndon avenue, raising cane, talking
about i own all these houses. what the blank you doing keeping me from coming to my properties. he was just loud-mouthing. >> i think there are certain parts of mobile that feared him all the way to his death. >> they knew that it was the klan. we knew that that element was in the community, and it was a dangerous situation as far as we were concerned. nobody at that point had any d. we thought that an independent investigative body needed to come in and look at it. we knew that the narrative put forth was nothing near the truth. eventually, it really got close to a boiling point. >> it's not right for them to go around hanging black folks, you know, because we don't go out there hanging no white people. >> so they did assign the civil
rights division of the justice department to look into it and actually put together an investigation that really brought the truth out. >> ultimately my father and my uncle begin to push out the message that this was racially motivated and an act of the klan. >> thomas figures is the first black man to be appointed and serve as mobile county district attorney. >> what you had here were two african-american american in a position that no african-american men had previously been in at the time of such a crime to be able to have an influential impact. thomas was certainly that bull in a china shop when it came to the case. he would not stop. he went above and beyond all the way up to the civil rights division in d.c. to request that the case be reopened. running down the leads that mobile police refused to do.
that ultimately led to all of the dominoes starting to fall as to who was responsible for this case. >> had it not been for thomas figures pushing on this, this thing wouldn't have gone any further. >> with the weight of the federal government and the state government behind us, we should be able to send somebody who had some responsibility for this action before the law of justice and let them reap their just reward. >> i think the mobile police department just didn't want to believe that a town like mobile would still have klan in it. but they did. >> let there be no doubt that the klan is behind this. but you gotta prove it first.
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