The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan by Laurence Leamer ☆☆☆☆
I bought this book as soon as it came out in 2016, and it has taken me this long to read it. I knew the subject matter would be incredibly difficult to read, and I also knew it would make me a very angry person. So I put it off as long as I could, but when I saw that Hoopla had the audiobook, I knew it was time to give it a go. If you are squeamish, this book might not be for you. It is a history book, but there is a lot of violence and some very hateful, racist language.
The Lynching is the story of the murder of Michael Donald by the Klan in 1981 in Mobile, AL, but it is also an in-depth look at the rise of the KKK in Alabama, and its ultimate downfall. Michael Donald was only 19 when he was stopped on the street by two men, forced into their car, and driven to a remote area. He was brutally murdered and then tied to a tree in a mixed neighborhood. It took 3 years for his killers to be brought to justice, because the Klan had such a strong hold on the justice system.
The first few chapters walk through the murder — the high-profile court case in which a black man was found not quilty of killing a white man, the anger and resentment felt by the local Klansmen, the brutal details of the Michael Donald lynching, and the ensuing criminal trial. The book then takes a step back, way back to the formation of the United Klans of America and the rise of Alabama’s most prominent Klan leaders. It also takes a look at the rise of the Southern Poverty Law Center and its ties to the Civil Rights efforts in Alabama.
It took a while for me to see where the book was tying it all together. At first I was annoyed that so little time was given to the Michael Donald case itself and so much time in the middle was spent on the formation of the UKA. It wasn’t until Leamer got into the formation of the SPLC that it started to make sense to me.
The last part of the book delves deeply into the Michael Donald civil trial, which would ultimately bring down the UKA in Alabama. Morris Dees, lawyer and co-founder of the SPLC, used the Michael Donald lynching to make a case that the racial hatred constantly spewed by the UKA was the catalyst for and cause of Donald’s death, and that the UKA deliberately riled up its constituents to commit acts of violence against minorities. It set a precedent that inciting violence makes that person or organization complicit in that violence.
This court case may have happened in 1983, but it is still very relevant to our situation today. We still have people and organizations that are inciting violence and then distancing themselves from that violence as if they had nothing to do with it, touting their right to “free speech” as if it was their personal get-out-of-jail-free card. This book brings a powerful message about the limitations of free speech, and what can be done when people overstep the bounds of it.