Ted Koppel, left, with Morris Dees, who brought a federal civil suit against the Klan for the 1981 lynching of a 19-year-old.
By DANIEL M. GOLD
Published: October 12, 2008
We’re often reminded of Faulkner’s aphorism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It truly applies in the case of “The Last Lynching,” an hour-long sampling of American civil rights history on Monday night, a “Koppel on Discovery” special.
In telling the stories of three delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August, Ted Koppel weaves Senator Barack Obama’s presidential nomination into the same social fabric as some of the best-known events of the civil rights era and some of the country’s least examined acts of violence.
We hear from Bob Filner, a California congressman who in 1961 was a Cornell University sophomore turned Freedom Rider arrested in Jackson, Miss., and sent to Parchman Farm, the state’s maximum security prison, for breaching the Jim Crow peace. And we hear from Lizzie Jenkins, president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, who recounts two little-discussed outbreaks of lynch-mob violence against blacks in her state in 1916 and 1923 — both part of her family’s lore.
But even with these reminiscences, those times have the feel of distant history, of dusty newsreels and faded photographs. So the program’s central focus is on what it calls the last lynching in the United States: the murder of Michael A. Donald, 19, by two young Ku Klux Klansmen in Mobile, Ala., in 1981. Or as Representative Artur Davis of Alabama, the third delegate Mr. Koppel spends time with, says, “in the era of color TV.”
James Knowles, one of the murderers, says on the program that he and his confederate, Henry Hays, the son of the local Klan chief, had randomly selected Mr. Donald as he was walking down a street one night. The two kidnapped him at gunpoint, then drove to a wooded area where they beat him and slit his throat. They returned to hang the body from a tree within view of the Hays family home.
The case became a landmark, though; after the men were convicted, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a federal civil suit on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, the victim’s mother, connecting the murder to the Klan as an organization. In 1987 the jury returned a $7 million wrongful-death judgment, bankrupting the local chapter.
Mr. Dees speaks to Mr. Koppel while standing under the tree where Mr. Donald’s body hung. And Mr. Koppel ties the story to this summer through Representative Davis, who worked with Mr. Dees as a law student and who addressed the convention before Mr. Obama took the stage.
In these accounts Mr. Koppel offers inspiration and a tribute to an event — the nomination of a black presidential candidate by a major party — that many had not expected in their lifetime. Yet “The Last Lynching” also conveys how close to the surface racial resentments can lie, and how easily they can be channeled into blind rage. In the end the program is as much cautionary tale as celebration.
See: KOPPEL ON DISCOVERY--The Last Lynching
Discovery Channel, Monday night at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Produced by Discovery Channel. Ted Koppel, managing editor; Tom Bettag, executive producer. A version of this article appeared in print on October 13, 2008, on page C8 of the New York edition.