Michael Donald (July 24, 1961 – March 21, 1981) was a young African American man who was murdered by two Ku Klux Klan members in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. The murder is sometimes referred to as the last recorded lynching in the United States.
In 1981, a trial of Josephus Anderson, an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman, took place in Mobile. While Anderson was convicted at a subsequent trial, this one ended without the jury reaching a verdict. The mistrial upset members of the United Klans of America who believed that the reason for the lack of decision was that some members of the jury were African Americans. At a meeting held after the mistrial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest-ranking official in the United Klans 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.”
The same night other Klan members burnt a three-foot cross on the Mobile County courthouse lawn. Bennie Hays’ son, Henry Hays (age 26), and James Llewellyn “Tiger” Knowles (age 17) drove around Mobile looking for a victim. Picked at random, they spotted Michael Donald walking home from getting his sister a pack of cigarettes. They kidnapped him, drove out to a secluded area in the woods, attacked him and beat him with a tree limb. They wrapped a rope around his neck, and pulled on it to strangle him, before slitting his throat and hanging him from a tree across the street from Hays’ house.
Local police initially stated that Donald had been killed as part of a drug deal gone wrong, despite his mother’s insistence that he had not been involved in drugs. Beulah Mae Donald then contacted Jesse Jackson, who organized a protest march in the city and demanded police answers.
The FBI became involved, partly at the urging of Michael and Thomas Figures, local activists. Two and a half years later, Henry Hays and James Knowles were arrested. Bennie Hays was also indicted in Donald’s murder but died before his trial began.
Hays, convicted, was incarcerated in the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama, while on death row. He was executed in the electric chair on June 6, 1997. The Associated Press reported that Hays was Alabama’s first execution for a white-on-black crime since 1913. Hays was also the only KKK member to be executed for the murder of an African-American during the 20th century.
U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand sentenced Knowles, who by then was 21 years of age, to a life sentence. Knowles had earlier testified that the slaying occurred “to show Klan strength in Alabama.” He avoided the death penalty by testifying against Hays at trial.
On May 18, 1989, Benjamin Franklin Cox, Jr., a truck driver from Mobile, was convicted in a federal court for being an accomplice in the Donald killing. Mobile County Circuit Court Michael Zoghby sentenced the then-28-year old Cox to life in prison for his part in the Donald murder.
The elder Hays was tried some years later but the first case ended in a mistrial. Zoghby said that because of the illness of the elder Hays, then 71, he had no choice but to declare a mistrial, even though Hays’s lawyer was willing to go forward with proceedings. Hays died of a heart attack before he could be retried.
In 2006, Mobile renamed Herndon Avenue Michael Donald Avenue. Mobile’s first black mayor, Sam Jones, presided over the small gathering of Michael Donald’s family and local leaders at the commemoration.