Opinion: The lessons of Beulah Mae Donald, the mother who took down the Klan

But there is reason to believe that it is. As a professor of social justice advocacy and leadership, I have found inspiration in the stories of past leaders who have confronted racial injustice without wavering. These leaders and role models are not always people with titles like CEO, executive director, or president — in fact, they often have titles like “activist,” “citizen,” or quite simply, “mother.”

That would be the title of Beulah Mae Donald, a Black mother in Mobile, Alabama, who put up a yearslong fight for justice after her son Michael was lynched in 1981. Donald led no organization and was not elected to public office, and yet she inspired others by her simple but steadfast insistence on accountability for the life of her child. For six years, she pursued the Ku Klux Klansmen who’d murdered her son in criminal and civil court, eventually leaving their organization bankrupt and defunct. Her story of resilience is not merely inspiring, but instructive for what we can do in 2021 and beyond.

Lesson: Media matters — especially Black media

After Michael Donald’s body was found, local police sought to falsely explain away the 19-year-old’s death as being “drug-related,” the result of an association with “nightlife” characters. The presumption of Black criminality has legitimated Black victimization by lynch mobs going back over a century before Donald was killed. Using the victim’s alleged reputation to justify their death is a practice that I call “post-mortem character assassination.”
The Chauvin trial is holding a mirror up to America's insufficient police training
Most recently, George Floyd’s opioid addiction and criminal record is being used by Derek Chauvin’s defense team to justify the victim’s death. Six years ago, days after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson at the hands of Police Officer Darren Wilson, media reports suggested that Brown was a violent drug user. Well before that, two grown White men were found not guilty of killing 14-year-old African American Emmett Till in 1955 — after reports that the child whistled at a White woman.
Even further back in history, the African American journalist Ida B. Wells wrote a definitive study of lynching, “The Red Record,” as well as countless reports of 20th century racial terrorism to fact-check the common practice of justifying the crimes of lynch mobs with the often-imagined crimes of Black victims.

Beulah Mae Donald was not a crusading journalist, but her decision to press for justice for her son led to the founding of a Black newspaper by her attorney, Alabama State Sen. Michael Figures. His paper, The New Times, and the African American press, including publications like Jet magazine, elevated the death of Michael Donald from a local footnote to a national headline — pressuring the successful prosecutions of Michael’s killers.

Lesson: Be persistent

In the months following Michael Donald’s death, his mother couldn’t rely on local police to ceaselessly pursue justice on her child’s behalf. It took pressuring the Justice Department to see authorities pursue the case until they found Donald’s killers, two years after he was lynched.

Beulah Mae Donald's nightmare became a challenge to America
Against insurmountable odds and racist resistance, a Klan member was held accountable for the murder of Michael Donald and given the death penalty — the first time that happened for White-on-Black crime in the state of Alabama since 1913. And the United Klans of America was held accountable and bankrupted by a $7 million judgment in civil court.

The story of Michael Donald’s mother Beulah Mae Donald should inspire America to persist in holding accountable those who desecrate and destroy black lives.

Lesson: The eloquence of example

Beulah Mae Donald is not remembered for stirring oratory. In fact, she leaves behind no widely cited quotes. She was, however, known by her actions. A loving mother to her children and a woman of deep faith, she taught her children to live, in the words of her daughter Cecelia Perry, a “good life.” Sam Jones, the former mayor of Mobile, Alabama, describes her as a “model mother.” Perhaps what drew people to her case was not only the brutality of the death of her son, but the eloquence of her example. Speaking through your actions with the ring of sincerity can motivate other people to act.

Lesson: Have courage

When she decided to sue America’s oldest terrorist organization in civil court, the case was entitled Beulah Mae Donald v. the United Klans of America. As a result, her suit made her the Black face of a legal threat to White supremacist terrorism.

When she challenged this violent organization, she did so without any state or federal protection. By contrast, when Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama took on Al Qaeda, they did so behind a wall of Secret Service protection.

Few Americans may be called upon to fight terrorism abroad or at home, but we are all called to confront hate with courage.

We should all ask ourselves how we can demonstrate the same degree of courage and character in our lives to pursue justice, and to do so with grace and dignity.

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