MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, as we continue to celebrate Latino Heritage Month, we have the latest in our series with DiversityInc Magazine on things never to say to Latino colleagues. But first, we're going to talk about a very ugly and unfortunately very long chapter in this country's history.
Thousands of African-Americans were murdered in lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries. Young men and some women who were accused of crimes for simply standing up for themselves, became the targets of angry, white mobs and individuals. In many cases, victims were murdered simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And that's a story of a shockingly recent lynching. In 1981, in Mobile, Alabama, a 19-year-old named Michael Donald was killed by two members of the local Ku Klux Klan who wanted to intimidate the local, black community.
That case is at the center of a new documentary, the "Last Lynching" which premiers tonight on the Discovery Channel at 10 PM. The film was the latest project of veteran journalist, Ted Koppel, who's with us now to talk about it. Welcome.
TED KOPPEL: Thank you.
MARTIN: And just a warning, before we begin our conversation, this film involves some issues that even to describe, may be disturbing to some people, particularly young people that listen to us. I think it's important to let people know that.
KOPPEL: Yes. I think you ought to let parents know. I think any child - kids mature fast these days, but I wouldn't let any child under 14 see this. If only because - and it's primarily in the first five minutes of the program.
One of the really dreadful things about the peak lynching period in this country's history which was from the early 1870s into the 1920s, is that one of the most popular souvenirs of lynchings were these postcards. People took photographs of the lynch victims, of the crowds who gathered in large numbers, sometimes with their picnic lunches in hand and with kids.
It was great entertainment and these postcards became collectors' items in a sense, and almost a hundred years later, they're still shocking to see.
MARTIN: Anybody who has followed your work, know that you've had a long interest in covering race in this country. You actually covered the Selma March which was a pivotal event in the civil-rights history. But what made you take this story on? Why lynching?
KOPPEL: It was actually one of the executives of Discovery who said to us, I don't know whether you guys would be interested in doing this story, but my mother tells of having seen a lynching when she was just a little girl. Or maybe, it wasn't even his mother, maybe it was his mother remembering his grandmother telling that.
But the point was, here we are living at a time when there are still people among us who either themselves have memories, or have memories of being told by very close relatives of lynchings that took place, and he made the point, all of these is happening at a time when we are about to see the Democratic Party nominate an African-American as its presidential candidate.
Can you do something with that? Yeah, we thought that might be a story there.
MARTIN: Yeah, might be a story there. And the story that you focused on was the last, recoded lynching that I think is acknowledged as a lynching which happened in 1981. Why was Michael Donald killed?
KOPPEL: He was killed, because as you put it at a moment ago, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There had actually been a trial going on in Mobile, Alabama, a trial of a black man who was accused of having killed a white cop. And it was - forgive the term, but its the only appropriate term - it was a hung jury.
And because the jury was predominantly black, the local clan took umbrage of this, and sent a couple of its young men out and said, go find yourself a substitute and lynch him, kill him. And these two young men did. And one of them who was 19 at that time, after he had done it, he turned states evidence. The other young man was executed.
But this other man spent 20 years in the Federal Witness Protection Program. You still don't see him on the air. He only agreed to do a phone conversation with me, but he talks about how it happened and why it happened, and the man they found could have been anyone, and they rolled the window down and said, hey, can you tell us how to get to such and such a restaurant?
And then they dragged him into the car, drove him out into the bayous and killed him. And then they brought the body back, and hanged it then from a tree directly in front of the home of the head of the Local United Clans of America. So it was a way of saying, let there be no doubt about who did this, it was the clan who did this, and let there be no doubt about why it was done, it was done to intimidate.
MARTIN: Let's hold for a minute, because I think you mentioned that you did not meet with, but you were actually able to speak with one of the people who killed Michael Donald, and I think we should hear a clip of his voice. Here it is.
(Soundbite of James "Tiger" Knowles interview)
Mr. JAMES "TIGER" KNOWLES (Michael McDonald's Perpetrator): I wonder what people would think if I found a nigger hanging in Mobile. Those words will always stick with me. It's one of the most haunting things in all of this tragedy as an inmate.
MARTIN: And I should mention again that his voice was disguised when he talked to you. Why is it that he did eventually turn states evidence, but it took three years before the case- before anybody was brought to trial? Why did it take so long?
KOPPEL: The police initially came to the sort of wonderful conclusion that this had to be a drug-related crime. Why they would think of that, I can't imagine. Michael Donald was hanged in a fashion that was meant to be reminiscent of the old lynching days. He was hanged in front of the home of the leader of the United Clans of America.
You would think that there would be a clue there or two that they might have gotten. But it wasn't until Jesse Jackson came to town, and led some demonstrations in Mobile that people began looking into this. And then indeed, this young man whose name - he's still going by the same name, this is one of the curious things - his name, at least his nickname was Tiger Knowles.
And Tiger Knowles turned state evidence, and himself then went to prison for 20 years.
MARTIN: He was clearly not a popular man once he decided to turn in his colleague who was executed for the crime. I hope it's not giving too much away, though, to say that the story did not end there. It was not only criminal trial, there was also a civil case.
KOPPEL: And the civil case, in fact, had far more of an impact nationally and certainly locally, regionally than the criminal case did. Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has a long and distinguished record of fighting civil-rights cases, decided that he would get Michael's mother, in other words, the victim's mother, to sue for civil damages.
And indeed, they brought a civil lawsuit against the United Clans of America and won, and in effect, caused the bankruptcy of the clan. Now that didn't mean the end of racism. It hasn't even meant the end of the clan, but it sure dealt the clan a major body blow, and cost them every nickel that they had at that point.
MARTIN: There was another I think - for some people, I would think maybe it's an emotional body blow. Very few whites have ever been held to account through the criminal justice system for murdering black people in this fashion. Not only that but that James "Tiger" Knowles apologized to Michael's mother for what he did. I want to play a short clip of that.
(Soundbite of James "Tiger" Knowles interview)
Mr. KNOWLES: I asked Ms. Donald to forgive me for what I had done, and I just - I begged her to forgive me, because I couldn't bring him back. And she did she forgive me and everyone.
MARTIN: Was that surprising to you?
KOPPEL: That she forgave him?
MARTIN: Does the whole thing? I mean, the fact that a person who could do something so horrendous, because I think we need to point out that this man was tortured before he was killed. I mean, he was beaten with a tree limb, his throat was cut, his body was dragged. I mean this was not, you know, something simple. So what do you make of all that?
KOPPEL: Honestly, Michel, I don't know because I don't really know James "Tiger" Knowles. We have talked a few times on the phone. I must tell you I am convinced that he has undergone a complete metamorphosis, and that he did years ago. This is not something recent. It was of no value to him whatsoever to come on this program even just by telephone.
He's taking a considerable risk. He has a new life now. He has a job. He just got out of prison a short while ago. He would be hugely embarrassed, I mean, he now says he has African-American friends, and he wouldn't want them to know. The curious thing is he hasn't changed his name. I never really understood that. But I do take him at his word and clearly so did Michael's mother. Because she said to him the actual words she used were, I've already forgiven you.
And as Maurice Dees describes that moment, he says there wasn't a dry eye in the court room. Even the judge had to brush away some tears. It was just an extraordinary moment, and she appears to have been a truly extraordinary woman.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with journalist Ted Koppel about his new documentary, "The Last Lynching."
You focus on three people in this film along with the story itself, Congressman Robert Filner, Congressman Arthur Davis and a woman named Lizzie Jenkins. Why these three?
KOPPEL: In a sense, it's giving away the punch line of the program, but we almost do that in the beginning, anyway. We worked backwards, Michel. We found three people who were delegates to the Democratic convention, whose lives had in one fashion or another been touched by racism.
Bob Filner, when he was a young student at Cornell, signed up to be a Freedom Rider, and he was arrested in Mississippi, and sent to Parchman Prison with a bunch of - it was mostly young black men, many of whom became leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
And he in turn, of course, became a politician, and he's now a congressman from California, worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center when he was a law student at Harvard. He now is the only black congressman from Alabama.
To have a black congressman now from Selma - representing Selma, Alabama - Montgomery, Alabama, to me, he is one of the truly positive signs of what's happened in the whole racial mix in this country today. Having said that, I don't want to live the impression that this program suggests that we've reached the millennium or that racism is over, quite the contrary.
One of the reasons that I wanted to do this program, Michel, is there are so many people alive today, black and white, who have no personal memory of some of these moments, that for me are still as fresh as though they just happened a couple of years ago.
And I wanted to remind people how recent some of these events actually were, and how much it was a part of the American social fabric. And there's a lot of that stuff that we really haven't gotten rid of to this day.
MARTIN: You know though, the covering civil rights and the story of race in this country has been so much a part of your adult life. Did digging into this subject bring anything up for you? Is there anything you learned as a result of this that you made you think differently?
KOPPEL: Two things, actually. One is that lynchings after all, are a form of terrorism. And terrorism has a political goal. It is not just a random act. There were around the turn of the century when the anarchist was around, they presumably had no political - actual political goals in mind.
It was just violence for the sake of violence, and violence would breed counter violence and eventually, that would lead to the dissolution of government. That was their only goal. Lynchings had a particular purpose, and the particular purpose was to say to African-Americans, you are never going to vote. You are never going to be a part of the political process in this country.
And if you think that you can move in that direction, there are going to be terrible consequences either for you directly, or for people close to you. And these lynchings were done with such bravado that it was meant to say, not only can we do this to you, but there's not a damn thing you can do about it.
MARTIN: It's a difficult film to watch, I have to say. I mean, obviously, you've done, you know, many, many films, and you know how to tell a story, and the interviews are compelling. But it's hard for me to watch. I don't know if it was hard for you to watch putting it together?
But the bodies of these young people, women - including women hanging from the trees, clearly having been tortured, people standing around smiling and laughing, there are pictures of children being exposed to this. Do you think that people want to hear it?
MARTIN: Do you think that people want to see this?
KOPPEL: No, I don't. And look, if you're looking for a large audience, I don't think this is the kind of program you're going to do. But some programs you and I have done over the years, because they need to be done. They deserve to be done. I was going to give you a second point.
A moment ago, there was something that happened to me on the day that Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech in Denver. There was a prayer meeting in the morning. John Lewis was there, a number of other great civil-rights leaders were there. And toward the end of that meeting, they began to sing, "We Shall Overcome."
And a couple of African-American women came over and I was sort of sitting near a camera platform. They grabbed me by both hands and brought me out so that we were - as was often the case, 40 some odd years ago down South, blacks and whites together, hand in hand, sort of swing back and forth and singing, "We Shall Overcome."
And I thought to myself, my God, it's been 43 years. But I was in Selma 43 years ago. I remember these scenes. I remember that song - not just remember it. I mean, it was evoking something profoundly moving in me, and the tears just filled my eyes, because it was though my life had come some kind of full cycle here.
Here we were on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's great speech in Washington on the day that Barack Obama was going to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party.
And 43 years had passed, and you can't help but say whether Obama wins or whether he losses, and this program doesn't take a position on that one way or another, believe it or not. It doesn't matter. This country will never go back to where it was then. Whether McCain wins or whether Obama wins, we have made progress.
MARTIN: Ted Koppel is a senior news analyst for NPR. His latest documentary, "The Last Lynching," airs tonight at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. Ted Koppel, thank you so much.
KOPPEL: Thank you, Michel. Always a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.