The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan, by Laurence Leamer

Eight stars

America’s race wars seem to be on the rise again, as the general populace is asked to reaffirm that certain lives matter. While the imagery is horrible and the bloodshed excessive, it pales in comparison to some of the clashes that became weekly occurrences in the South for decades. The Civil War sought to rectify some of these issues, but only exacerbated them, allowing the rise of white supremacy in its many forms, the most prevalent and wide-spread being the Ku Klux Klan. Leamer seeks not only to explore Klan life in America, particularly throughout Alabama, but also a criminal case that might have snuffed out the power Klan politics had over the state and across America. In March 1981, members of Klavern 900 of the United Klans of America pondered how to lash out against a jury that refused to find a black bank robber guilty of shooting a white police officer. Hatred filled their speech and the only solution would be to commit an act so outrageous that everyone would take notice. Klansmen focussed on nineteen year-old Michael Donald, walking through Mobile late at night. What follows is an act so depraved and horrible that it does not bear detailing here. Needless to say, Donald was lynched and his dead body left dangling from a tree at the courthouse. After some investigating and witness statements, a member of the Klan was brought to justice and sentenced for the crime. Leamer then takes a significant amount of time in the middle of this book to explore the rise of racial hatred in Alabama, particularly under the watchful eye of George Wallace, its segregationist governor. In the 1960s. Wallace welcomed the help of the Klan in preserving order in the state and ensuring that he would not have to bend to the wave of integration, which he felt would sully his state. Civil rights leaders found much of their time spent in the state dedicated to marching and peacefully protesting, though they were met with clubs, bottles, and water cannons. Still, their resolve did not bend and Wallace’s invectives were soon diluted, at times with the help of the Oval Office. Out of the fray came one black lawyer, Morris Dees, who worked with the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) and could not, in good conscience, let Alabama fall into such an abyss. His smooth writing style and ability to cut to the chase had him a sought after commodity by politicians throughout the South. However, Leamer depicts him as the man who would stop at nothing to bring down the Klan, after seeing all its actions throughout the 1960s and 70s. Returning th narrative to the mid-80s, Leamer discusses that Dees took the opportunity to approach Michael Donald’s mother and agreed to take her case to civil court for wrongful death. This was Dees’ opportunity to pull all the key figures in the Klan onto the carpet, in an Alabama courtroom, from the lowly men who committed the lynching to the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Robert Shelton, and the entire United Klans of America. Fighting and taking no prisoners, Dees sought justice for a people as well as a nation, hoping to put the heinous past of segregation, black suppression, and white supremacist violence by the wayside. It was an epic fight, the true David versus Goliath, though its end result was anything but certain. Leamer does a fascinating job at pulling the heartstrings of the reader, even those who did not suffer through the era. His powerful story will resonate in the minds and hearts of anyone courageous enough to take the time and learn how Michael Donald became a lasting symbol of the fight for equality in Alabama.

Leamer does a masterful job of depicting the Klan, the state of racial unrest in Alabama, and the overall sentiment of the movement in a short time. While I have always been looking for an overarching book to explore the roots and depths of the Klan in America, Leamer has surely whet my appetite to learn a little more. I tend to turn towards things about which I know little, in hopes of learning more and being able to adequately represent myself in discussions. The two outer parts of the book flow so well that one might sometimes wonder if these are pieces of historical fiction. It is listed under non-fiction, which supports that the horrors and battles found therein are at least mostly true. The power of his writing and the depths of despair that the reader can find themselves, should they be open to learning, is amazing. The middle section, a true history of hate and the rise of George Wallace, proves even more telling, as Leamer sets the basis of Alabama as a cesspool of hatred, though surely the rhetoric of the times did not help. Does Leamer go too far? I would venture to say no, in that he is trying to illustrate just how poorly things got and how horrible the nightly walks could have been for blacks or those who sympathised with their cause. I was enthralled with the story, the narrative, and the overall rawness of what Leamer had to tell. One can only hope many others will take the time to learn about this before dismissing if any set of lives matter more than others.

Kudos, Mr. Leamer for pulling me in so effectively. I will be sure to find some more of your work in the near future.