An emboldened strain of racism fermenting in dark corners of the Internet evokes the racial terrorism that thrived for decades in the American South, according to the author of a new book.
“There’s still hate in the American soul,” says Laurence Leamer, who examines a ghastly 1981 race murder in The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan (William Morrow).
The book concerns the slaying of Michael Donald, 19, randomly abducted in Mobile, Ala., by a Ku Klux Klan clique engaged in a quixotic retaliation scheme after a Mobile jury failed to reach a verdict in the trial of a black man accused of killing a white cop. (The defendant, Josephus Anderson, was later convicted and is serving life without parole.)
Two young Klansmen, Henry Hays and James (Tiger) Knowles, killed Donald, then strung up his body in a camphor tree in a black neighborhood in Mobile. They were put up to it by Hays’ father, Bennie Hays, a local KKK potentate who served as a seething Svengali for a clutch of ignoramuses, including his son.
Henry Hays was convicted, condemned to die and executed, in 1997. Knowles, just 17 when he participated in the murder, was paroled after 25 years in prison.
One reviewer said Leamer’s book makes To Kill a Mockingbird “read like a bedtime story.” The author takes a long view of the history leading up to the murder, with a narrative that intertwines profiles of George Wallace, the shrewd Alabama governor and 1968 presidential candidate who crafted a political career by manipulating racism, and Morris Dees, a civil rights crusader who founded the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Dees, who pressed a lawsuit that led to the Klan’s financial ruin, is the book’s protagonist.)
Leamer’s themes have become especially relevant today in a political climate roiled by allegations of racism linked to the campaign (and supporters) of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and by last June’s racially motivated massacre at a Charleston, S.C., African-American church by Dylann Roof, a disaffected dead-ender inspired by white-power propaganda.
Leamer, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and former Newsweek editor who has authored books on cocaine trafficking in Peru, notorious West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship, and TV talk-show host Johnny Carson, talked with The Crime Report’s David J. Krajicek.
The Crime Report: Hayes, Knowles and his KKK peers were not the brightest lights in Dixie. You describe them as motley and marginal. What drove their anger?
Laurence Leamer: Their racism was based in part on the fact that the only people they could look down upon were poor blacks because everybody else looked down on them. They were leftovers of an emerging new South, and they were a sad group. I talked to a bunch of the former Klansmen. They lived in little houses. They spent much of their time in front of television sets in overstuffed chairs looking at old movies.
TCR: Why were they so intent on a public display of the victim’s body?
Leamer: The whole idea was to show that the Klan was still a force in Alabama. That’s why right after the lynching other Klansmen set out a burning cross in front of the Mobile courthouse.
TCR: Earlier iterations of the Klan included white business leaders regarded as respectable. When did the KKK become a club for the disaffected?
Leamer: In the Twenties, the KKK was no more of an outcast organization in much of America than the Rotary Club. The governor of Indiana was a Klansman. The Klan had a major role in the Oregon legislature. In those years the Klan’s major focus was Catholics, not black people.
TCR: Bennie Hays (who died in 1993) was the alpha male of this band of misfits. Tell me about him.
Leamer: He was as hateful a man as has walked this earth. To teach his son to be a man, Bennie took a faithful dog that had been pawing its way under the fence and cut off his paws while Henry Hays watched. Young Henry cried. That upset his father that his son was not a real man.
TCR: You’ve written many biographies. What stood out as you studied these Klansmen?
Leamer: I guess how ordinary they were. They didn’t reek of hate. I interviewed James Knowles, who after 25 years in prison is a kosher chef in a northern city. He’s a different person now, and he doesn’t even understand how he could have done this when he was 17 years old.
TCR: Which did they hate more: black people or their own lives?
Leamer: I think a shrink would say they hated their own lives more, but they did not have the insight into themselves to begin to understand this.
TCR: Dylann Roof, the accused Charleston church killer, had a white power fetish. Does he have a psychological tether to the Mobile murderers?
Leamer: The scariest thing about Roof is he wasn’t a member of a racist group and didn’t have to be in order to become infected with these vicious ideas. It’s out there on the Internet for anyone who wants to find it. And, yes, he’s figuratively a brother to Henry Hays and Tiger Knowles.
TCR: David Duke is back in the news as the Trump campaign has bestowed some measure of legitimacy on racist outliers. Should we be concerned that white supremacists are newly emboldened?
Leamer: I hate to say this but I think there’s still hate in the American soul, or at least in many American souls. I don’t think Trump personally is a racist, but he is bringing forth some terrible things from the American psyche, and it may not be over…Lots of people don’t like President Obama because he’s black, and his presidency has set off some hateful people.
TCR: You take a sweeping look at the civil rights infamy of Alabama, from George Wallace to the Birmingham church bombing to violence associated with the Selma-Montgomery march. Do Alabamians somehow stand apart in their racism?
Leamer: One found similar things happening across the Deep South. The difference is that other than LBJ, George Wallace was the most brilliant Southern politician of his time. He could have been the southern F.W. de Klerk, who worked with Nelson Mandela to end apartheid in South Africa. Wallace knew segregation was going to end, but he cynically decided he would advance further if he became the most militant defender of segregation.
TCR: Until the lynching, Mobile took a self-congratulatory stance for avoiding the racial violence of Montgomery and Birmingham. Was that an illusion?
Leamer: It was totally an illusion. To defend that illusion, the Mobile authorities arrested three young men who had nothing to do with the lynching and accused them of the crime. If there had not been such a brave grand jury, those young men would have stood trial. They might have spent their lives in prison or been executed for a crime they did not commit.
TCR: Mobile authorities were faulted for ineptitude or even KKK empathy. Did federal intervention save the Donald homicide investigation?
Leamer: People go on and on talking about state’s rights, condemning the federal role. If the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the FBI had not gotten involved, the killers would have gone free.
TCR: You note that Morris Dees was born into a staunchly segregationist Alabama family and was slow to switch sides. By all accounts, he is a character—loved by some, reviled by others. What makes him tick?
Leamer: He’s an extraordinary man. People compare him to Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird. I think he’s more like Oskar Schindler, the womanizing, flamboyant German Nazi who ended up saving thousands of Jews. Finch never existed but Schindler did, reminding us that heroes are often more complicated than we possibly can imagine.
TCR: Dees pushed the SPLC to monitor the Klan and other hate groups, an expensive undertaking that continues today. Some SPLC partners saw this as a tangent, but itsHateWatch operation has become central to the SPLC mission, right?
Leamer: Actually, the entire legal team at the SPLC quit because of Dees’ obsessive concern with the Klan. It’s clear now for any number of reasons that Dees was right.
TCR: Why did he choose the Mobile case to attack the Klan’s assets?
Leamer: Dees heard about the case and sat in the courtroom for the murder trial of Henry Hays. He invented a whole new legal theory to take down the United Klans of America.
TCR: Where does the KKK stand today?
Leamer: Thanks in part to the SPLC, the Klan doesn’t exist anymore as a major organization. The problem is that the hate has not gone away. It’s out there in the guise of any number of troubled individuals.
TCR: And a fanzine-style finale: This story lends itself to a film. Has Tom Hanks come knocking yet?
Leamer: I don’t have time to answer this one. There’s a knock at the door I have to answer, and it may be Tom.
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He writes frequently about crime and justice for TCR, the New York Daily News, AlterNet and others. He welcomes readers’ comments.