On this date in 1997, an Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan went to Alabama’s “Yellow Mama” for lynching a black teenager.
Henry Francis Hays, son of a top Klan officer in Alabama, had vented dissatisfaction with a jury’s failure to convict a black defendant for a white policeman’s murder by grabbing and stringing up a random black, 19-year-old Michael Donald.
Hays and his 17-year-old accomplice skated for more than two years because Mobile’s finest figured a publicly hanged black man probably had it coming from some drug deal.* Only through the victim’s mother’s persistence — she got Jesse Jackson involved, which helped involve the FBI — did the real murderers feel the heat.
Before long, the Klan would wish it had stayed out of the kitchen.
After Hays’ conviction, Michael Donald’s mother brought a civil action against the United Klans of America with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The $7 million liability verdict she won financially destroyed the United Klans — perpetrators of some of the 1960s’ most infamous anti-civil rights terror — and Donald was awarded its national headquarters building in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Hays wasn’t through making the sort of history he’d rather not have made.
When his turn in the electric chair finally came in 1997, he became the first white in Alabama put to death for an offense against a black in 84 years.**
Seemingly less cocksure in answering for his crime than he had been in committing it, Hays had always maintained his innocence. A few days before walking his last mile, he finally confessed to the Mobile chapter head of the NAACP.
* Michael Donald was not, in fact, involved in drugs.
** There haven’t been any other executions for white-on-black crime since Henry Hays, a span of 11 more years and 22 more executions as of this writing. (via the Death Penalty Information Center’s Execution Database)