Robert Shelton, George Wallace and Michael Donald may no longer be in the news, but they are forever entwined in this riveting account of a racist murder in the Deep South. The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan, by journalist and author Laurence Leamer, recounts 19-year-old Donald’s horrific death in 1981 at the hands of Alabama Ku Klux Klan members. The book is also a deftly researched history of the civil rights movement. Most vividly, it is the story of Morris Dees, born poor and white in solidly segregated Alabama, who abandoned his inherited segregationist leanings to become a civil rights attorney and cofounder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC’s civil lawsuit against the United Klans of America led to an unprecedented $7 million judgment against the group.
Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the Alabama Klan, was driven to rage when murder charges against a black man resulted in a mistrial. Underlings turned hate into action: Two Klan members randomly selected, beat and strangled Donald, unlucky enough to be walking alone one night. They hung his body from a tree on a residential street.
Wallace, about to win his fourth term as governor, had imbued his state with racist rhetoric, and the United Klans of America were his devoted supporters. They had met the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s with bombings, beatings and murders, and their power, like Wallace’s, remained largely unchallenged. Despite landmark civil rights legislation, with Donald’s murder, it appeared nothing much had changed in Alabama.
Yet times had changed, thanks to lawyers like Dees: One of Donald’s killers was eventually executed and his accomplice imprisoned. The SPLC’s lawsuit bankrupted the Alabama Klan. As for Shelton, before his death in 2003 he despaired, “The Klan is my belief, my religion. But it won’t work anymore. The Klan is gone. Forever.” Today, the Klan still exists. The Lynching reminds us why that matters.
This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.