The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan
Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1964–66)
$27.99 (hardcover), $12.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Martin Ganzglass (Somalia 1966–68)
Whatever hyperbole appears on the back cover will not do justice to Laurence Leamer’s The Lynching — The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan. This fast paced factual thriller, with its numerous short, punchy chapters, is better than a John Grisham courtroom novel.
It is an account of two dramatic trials: the first, a criminal trial of two members of the Mobile, Alabama Klan for the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald, an innocent black nineteen-year-old, randomly selected and brutally murdered; and the second, the 1984 civil suit, brought by Morris Dees, civil rights attorney and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLA) against the United Klans of America (UKA). That suit, “Beulah Mae Donald, as Executor of the Estate of Michael Donald, Deceased, v. United Klans of America, et al.”, proved a conspiracy by the UKA to murder innocent blacks and ended with a judgment of $7 million dollars in Mrs. Donald’s favor. It broke the back of the UKA. It was a momentous civil rights decision and provided a legal weapon successfully used against other white supremacist groups.
But The Lynching, despite its lengthy subtitle, is more than a retelling of two courtroom dramas. It is the story of the evolution of Morris Dees from naïve young lawyer with segregationist sympathies to chief trial lawyer for the SPLA, ardent advocate for civil rights, and primary mover behind the Montgomery Civil Rights Memorial and Center.
In 1957, 21 year-old Dees was the statewide student campaign manager for George Wallace in his first and unsuccessful race for Governor. In May 1961, as a young lawyer, Dees represented Claude Henley, a leading member of the UKA who was a defendant in a federal civil rights suit arising out of the violent attacks on the Freedom Riders earlier that month. Initially thought of by Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton as a friend of the UKA, Dees, a Baptist-raised, native-born Alabaman, was subsequently labeled by the Klan as an “anti-Christ Communist Jew” and disowned by his own family for the civil rights suits he brought, successfully integrating the Montgomery YMCA, forcing the city of Selma to pave roads in black neighborhoods, and compelling Alabama to hire black state troopers.
The Lynching is also a timely and cautionary tale about George Wallace, a populist demagogue, who used white identity politics to campaign for President in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. Like Donald Trump today, Wallace enjoyed “provoking his enemies, spewing rhetoric rarely heard in public life,” and refusing to disown support from the UKA and other racist organizations. According to Leamer, “Wallace . . . hooked into anger among working-class and lower middle-class whites who thought the American Dream was no longer within reach. They felt the government was wired against them . . .. His rallies always had an undertone of potential violence. [Wallace] loved that and needed it.”
Donald Trump’s slogan to “Make America Great Again,” feeds into white Americans’ economic anxieties and their fear of our racially changing society. “The Lynching” reminds us that this ugly, bigoted pitch has been tried before and failed.
Martin R. Ganzglass graduated from Harvard Law School in 1964 and as a PCV in Somalia serving as legal advisor to the Somali National Police Force. He is the author of Somalia — Short Fiction and three novels about the American Revolution, the most recent, Blood Upon the Snow, published in April of this year.