On the night of March 21, 1981, a cross crackled and burned on the lawn of the Mobile County courthouse—the Ku Klux Klan’s grim protest of the outcome of a local murder trial. It was just the beginning of the terror that would take place that night.
The cross burned out, but the Klan’s anger didn’t. Later that night, two men roamed Mobile looking for a black man to kill. They found him: 19-year-old Michael Donald. Before the night was through, Donald had been murdered and his body hung from a tree.
It was a 20th-century lynching in the most brutal sense of the word—and thanks to a landmark civil lawsuit by Michael’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, it would end up being the last.
As sociologists Stewart Emory Tolnay and E.M. Beck explain in their book A Festival of Violence, Michael Donald was different from some lynching victims in that he was not accused of committing a crime or thought to have breached racial etiquette. Instead, he was killed because the Klan members were furious that the second trial of Josephus Anderson, a black man accused of murdering a white policeman, had been declared a mistrial when the jury could not reach a verdict.