Talmage Boston 2016-05-30 12:23:35
A Good Book About Mostly Bad People How the story of a civil trial arising from a lynching manages to uplift readers. In a nation that rarely believes civil litigation achieves anything for the betterment of society, it’s a blessing to the profession when a noted historian researches and writes a book that recognizes the good a lawsuit can do. Laurence Leamer’s new book, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan (William Morrow 2016), does exactly that. If the United States had a hall of fame devoted to evil organizations, the Ku Klux Klan would be a first ballot inductee. Formed during Reconstruction, the Klan terrorized African-Americans and all who favored racial integration and civil rights. Between 1877 and 1950, its severe reign of terror was responsible for almost 4,000 lynchings—an average of one black American being hanged every week for more than 70 years. Fortunately, the killings began tapering off in 1950 and stopped after 1955, until 19-year-old Michael Donald was killed near Mobile, Alabama, in 1981 by two Klan members who beat the young black man with a tree limb, strangled him with a hangman’s rope, slit his throat, and finally hung his dead body from a tree in a residential neighborhood. The two killers were arrested. One made a plea deal, which resulted in his serving 25 years in prison (20 in solitary confinement); the other was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed in the electric chair. Morris Dees, grand champion of American civil rights lawyers, wanted something more to come from the 1981 lynching than criminal punishment for the two murderers. He wanted to bring an end to the Ku Klux Klan once and for all; and so, on behalf of Donald’s mother, he sued the Klan and a few of its leaders in June 1984 in federal court in Mobile, seeking actual damages of $10 million. Leamer’s book has three parts: the circumstances that led to Donald’s death and the criminal trial of one of the killers; mini-biographies of Dees, Klan leader Robert Shelton, and former Alabama Gov. George Wallace; and the civil case pre-trial, trial in February 1987, and aftermath. In all three parts, the author sheds light on what caused thousands of Southern men for over a century to become agents of violent racist hate. The author provides these answers: • “They found in the Klan a purpose and kinship they hadn’t found anywhere else.” • For many who “had done nothing of value in life, it provided a chance to do something that would set them apart.” • “They were a motley, dispirited underclass who wanted black people held down in part because they needed someone to look down upon, as most of the white world looked down on them.” Enter Dees to confront the evil empire. Question: What kind of person takes on the challenge of attempting to vanquish a large group of dangerous racists? Answer: A fellow who rides motorcycles at 100 miles an hour on country roads, competes as a calf-roper in rodeos, makes millions selling cookbooks before becoming a full-time lawyer, and philanders through five broken marriages. The historic trial against the Klan lasted only three days, and Dees got a $7 million verdict, providing him with what he regards as the greatest victory of his career. The result essentially devastated the Klan. Using plea bargaining witnesses and disclosures made in the Klan’s newspaper reflecting the organization’s criminal intent, Dees established that the hate group had seven-figure liability to Donald’s family, proving them to be “an organization with a military structure whose custom, practice, and policy was to advance the cause of white supremacy through violence, which made murder a natural consequence.” The Lynching is a good book about mostly bad people, though it ends with an uplifting component, given that over time, some of those who committed unconscionable acts ultimately saw the error of their ways, transformed their attitudes, and embraced Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words: “All men are created equal.” TALMAGE BOSTON is a shareholder in Winstead and a member of the Texas Bar Journal Board of Editors. His new book, Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers From the Experts About Our Presidents (Bright Sky Press 2016), will be released September 1.
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