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The Long Crusade : Morris Dees Has Battled the Klan for More Than a Decade. Now His Target Is Tom Metzger and the White Aryan Resistance.

December 03, 1989|RICHARD E. MEYER | R ichard E. Meyer is a Times staff writer.

Not far away, Michael Donald, 19, the youngest son of Beulah Mae Donald, 61, is walking home from his sister's house. A masonry student at Carver State Technical College, Michael Donald works part time in the mail room at the Mobile Press Register. He is quiet, broad-shouldered and well-mannered. He likes music, plays basketball on a community team, dates two or three girls.

As he detours to a corner gas station to buy cigarettes, Henry Hays and Tiger Knowles pull up.

They motion him over.

Knowles asks the way to a nightclub, and Michael Donald starts to direct him.

"Come closer," Knowles says.

Michael Donald leans over. Knowles pulls out the pistol.

"Be quiet," Knowles says.

They order him into the car and drive across Mobile Bay and into the woods.

"I can't believe this is happening," Michael Donald pleads. "I'll do anything you want. Beat me; just don't kill me. Please don't kill me."

The car stops. They order him out. Knowles holds the pistol. Michael Donald grabs him. All three scuffle for the gun. It goes off.

The bullet whines into the air.

Henry Hays pulls a knife. Michael jerks free. He runs. They chase him. He grabs a fallen tree limb. They knock it away. Hays has the noose. They wrestle it over Michael's head. Michael pulls on the rope, running in circles. Knowles holds the other end and beats him, again and again, with the tree limb.

Michael collapses.

Henry Hays pushes his boot into Michael's face and pulls the rope tight.

They drag him through the dirt to the car. They lift him into the trunk. Knowles asks Hays if he thinks Michael is dead.

"I don't know," Hays replies. "But I'm gonna make sure."

He cuts Michael's throat--three times.

They drive back to Henry Hays' house and throw one end of the rope over the limb of a camphor tree across the street. Then they lift Michael by the neck--high enough to swing.

From the porch, the rest of the klansmen can see.

As Knowles steps back up to join them, he feels a friendly pinch.

"Good job, Tiger."

In the dead of night, two of the klansmen drive downtown to the Mobile County courthouse. Out front, they set flame to a cross. And in the cool of the early morning, the city finds Beulah Mae Donald's son, hanging from the camphor tree, bruised, broken, dead.

Despite the rope and the burning cross, the Mobile County district attorney declares that race--much less the Ku Klux Klan--does not seem to be a factor in Michael Donald's death.

But the black community calls it a lynching.

Beulah Mae Donald's attorney, state Sen. Michael Figures, says it is clear to him that, at the very least, white extremists of some kind are involved.

Whites accuse Figures, who is black, of stirring up racism.

The police investigate, but they do not question the klan. Instead, they look into a theory that Michael Donald might have been involved with a white woman at the Press Register and gotten killed in a love triangle. Then they investigate a theory that he might have gotten killed in a drug deal. They arrest three men they describe as junkies. But when the case goes to a county grand jury, it tumbles apart.

Thousands of blacks march in protest.

All Beulah Mae Donald wants, she says, is "to know who really killed my child."

Michael Figures' brother, Thomas, an assistant U.S. attorney in Mobile, asks for a second investigation--this time by a federal grand jury.

And this time, Tiger Knowles cracks.

He plea-bargains. In return for his testimony, Knowles gets life--and Henry Hays gets death.

There the matter of Michael Donald might remain--but for the district attorney, who continues to maintain the klan's innocence. "I'm not sure this was a klan case," the district attorney says. Rather, he declares, this was a case in which members of the Ku Klux Klan just happen to have been involved.

Morris Dees simply does not believe it, and he cannot ignore it.

From what he can plainly see, Tiger Knowles and Henry Hays did not act in a vacuum. Dees calls Michael Figures and suggests that Beulah Mae Donald and the NAACP file a civil suit against the United Klans of America, headed by Robert Shelton, its imperial wizard. Dees proposes to prove that the killers carried out a policy of violence for which the klan is responsible--just as a corporation is liable for the actions of its employees when they carry out its policies.

Although individual klansmen--Tiger Knowles and Henry Hays--were prosecuted, nobody has ever tried suing United Klans as a whole for damages. The idea, Dees says, would be to win a financial judgment large enough to bankrupt it.

Beulah Mae Donald approves.

On her behalf, Morris Dees sues United Klans of America in U.S. District Court in Mobile for $10 million.

The klan sees trouble.

Even before jury selection, it consents to a broad injunction against harassing blacks. Then, as the trial gets under way, Morris Dees calls Tiger Knowles to testify.

Flanked by federal marshals, Knowles walks into court, past Beulah Mae Donald at the plaintiff's table.

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