One often reads about how the SPLC uses “strategic law suits” to “bring the Klan to its knees.” This is more PR rhetoric, written by SPLC public relations guru, Mark Potok and parroted in the media. The actual facts behind these publicity stunts are less impressive.
In the much publicized article, “The Church of Morris Dees,” published in Harper’s magazine in 2000, author Ken Silverstein elaborates on the details behind the SPLC’s most famous case to date.
There is no dispute regarding the basic facts in the case.
In 1981, two Klansmen in Mobile, Alabama, angry that a black suspect had not been found guilty in the murder of a White policeman, deliberately set out to find and murder a black in retribution. Henry Hays, 26, and Robert Knowles, 17, spotted 19-year-old Michael Donald on the street, kidnapped, beat and strangled him, and hung his corpse from a tree.
The SPLC likes to portray this horrendous crime as a “lynching,” when in fact it was a classic case of first degree murder. Lynching implies that extrajudicial punishment is meted out to the accused when, in this case, neither Hays nor Knowles ever implied that Donald was guilty of anything. The SPLC uses the term “lynching” purely for emotional effect.
Hays and Knowles were found guilty of murder, (not “lynching”) and Hays was executed in 1997, while Knowles received a life sentence.
Morris Dees and the SPLC played no part whatsoever in the arrest and conviction of Hays and Knowles, but knowing a good public relations opportunity when he saw one, Dees contacted the victim’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, through her attorney.
On page 215 of his autobiography, A Season for Justice, Dees states that he didn’t know exactly what he was going to sue the United Klans of America for, but he would find something. Dees had nothing to lose by trying and a lot to gain if he pulled it off.
Dees came up with an innovative and intriguing concept: If a legitimate corporation is responsible for damages caused by its employees, could the United Klans of America be held to the same standards?
Undoubtedly, this was a brilliant strategy, and there was little doubt that the two Klan thugs were acting as members of the UKA. In 1984, the SPLC filed a suit against the Untited Klans of America, on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald, in the amount of $10 million dollars.
The suit was ultimately succesful, with the judge awarding damages in the amount of $7 million dollars to Mrs. Donald, in 1987.
SPLC fund raising press releases generally end the story right about here, with a coda that mentions that, with the money she received from the Klan, Mrs. Donald was able to buy her own home and that the UKA had been “brought to its knees.”
Ken Silverstein follows up on the story, however, in his Harper’s article. During the years that the SPLC’s law suit was moving through the judicial machinery, the SPLC highlighted the case in its steady stream of fund raising letters. At least one letter included a photo of Michael Donald’s beaten and bloated corpse (GRAPHIC IMAGE WARNING). Dees even included the photo in his autobiography.
Not surprisingly, the UKA did not have $7 million dollars worth of assets to pay to Mrs. Donald. The only real property the group had was a warehouse, the sale of which brought Beulah Mae Donald a check for just under $52,000 dollars.
Meanwhile, as Silverstein reports, the SPLC’s fund raising efforts, including the photos of Michael Donald’s corpse, had brought in a total of $9 million donor dollars, of which Mrs. Donald received exactly nothing.
Multimillionaire Dees writes that the Center did generously front Mrs. Donald the money to buy her new home, until the warehouse could be liquidated. Mrs. Donald, who would only live in her new home for a few months prior to her death in 1987, duly repaid the loan. Dees made sure he was on hand when Mrs. Donald moved in, however, and included photos of the event in his press releases and his book.
As for the United Klans of America, now “brought to their knees” by the loss of their $52,000 warehouse, not much changed for them. The two murderers were already in prison. Not one other Klan member went to jail because of the Donald suit.
They just had to find another place to keep their stuff.