Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1981, just 27 years ago, an African-American teenager named Michael Donald was murdered by two members of the Ku Klux Klan, who slit his throat and hung his body from a tree in Mobile, Alabama. They were sending a message.

In a new documentary called, "The Last Lynching" that airs tonight on the Discovery Channel, Ted Koppel tells the story of Michael Donald and his mother. He interviews one of his killers, and talks with Congressman Artur Davis who worked on this case as a young civil-rights attorney, and who this summer, seconded the nomination of the first African-American to win the presidential nomination of a major American political party.

We'll talk with Ted Koppel, Congressman Davis, and with a professor for whom lynching is more than U.S. history, it's family history. Later in the hour, William Kristol joins us on the Opinion Page in today's New York Times. He argues that John McCain should fire his campaign, just three weeks before Election Day.

But first, if lynching is part of your family story, on either side, our phone number 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also share your story on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Many Mondays, we talk with Ted Koppel about international news, today he joins us from his home in Maryland to talk about his documentary for the Discovery Channel, "The Last Lynching." And Ted, as as always, nice to have you on the program today.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal. Always good to be with you.

CONAN: And let's begin with that message. What was the message sent when James "Tiger" Knowles and Henry Hays lynched Michael Donald?

KOPPEL: Well, they were both members of the Ku Klux Klan. This event occurred at a time when a black man was on trial for murder. The charge was that he had killed a white police officer, and the jury, which was predominantly black, it was a hung jury, and so the defendant walked. And members of the clan - leaders of the clan in Mobile wanted to send a message to the black community that they couldn't get away with this kind of thing, which indeed is what the Klan and groups like the Klan have been doing for generations in this country.

Lynchings were really just random acts of violence, as often as not they were calculated acts of terrorism that were intended to send a political message, and the political message as much as anything else was, if you people think you're going to be a part of the political process in this town, in this village, in this state, you've got another thing coming. So, these two young men were sent out with the mission of just lynching a black man. It didn't really matter who, and Michael was unfortunate enough. He was only 19 years old at that time, to respond to a query about where a particular restaurant might be.

He leaned over into the car where these two young Klan's men were, they dragged him into the car at gunpoint, took him off into the bayou, beat him, slit his throat, and then brought him back, and hanged him from a tree right across from the home of the local Klan leader. So, the message was anything but subtle. Nevertheless, it took the Mobile police department two or three years before they got over their initial impression, which was that this was a drug-related killing.

CONAN: And you tie this story - and there are a couple of other stories you also tell in this documentary - but this story, first of all, astonishing that it was 1981, and so close to our memories that it has very live connections to the Democratic Convention that was held in Denver this summer.

KOPPEL: Well, Artur Davis, who as you said is going to be joining us, is I believe and he will correct me if I'm wrong, still the only black congressman from Alabama. But he represents Birmingham and Selma. Birmingham, which during the 1960s, it used to be known as "Bombing Ham."

When I think of being down in that part of the country, as I was often covering civil-rights stories in the early mid-60s, it is astonishing to me that we are where we are today. Having said that, there continues to be a significant amount of racism in this country, and we wanted to draw attention both to the past and to the more recent past.

CONAN: Well, as you mentioned, joining us now from member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, is Congressman Artur Davis. He represents the 7th District of Alabama, and is featured in the documentary - the Discovery documentary, "The Last Lynching." And Congressman Davis, nice to have you on the program today with us.

Representative ARTUR DAVIS (Democrat, 7th District of Alabama): Neal, thank you. Glad to be on the program, and glad to be in the company of Ted Koppel again.

CONAN: And what is your connection to the Michael Donald case?

Representative DAVIS: Well, frankly, my connection's a little bit on the peripheral side. I worked as a young law student for the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Southern Poverty Law Center is a legal-advocacy organization in Montgomery, Alabama, that has done an enormous amount of good work since its inception in the 1970s.

The Southern Poverty Law Center brought a civil suit on behalf of Mr. Donald, and they recovered at that time, the first judgment that'd ever been recovered in the country against the Ku Klux Klan, and they had a very novel and interesting legal theory, that this wasn't simply a random act of violence by a few crazed Klansmen, but that this was something that flew out of the philosophy, and out of the direction, and if you will, of the management structure of the Ku Klux Klan.

They had to prove those things to hold the Klan liable as an organization. They were successful, and after that, they went on to do a series of other law suits. When I worked at the center as an intern in 1992, the center was involved in collecting some judgments that they have obtained in some cases in Oregon against skinheads out there...

CONAN: Mm.

Representative DAVIS: And it was the same legal theory that the national skinheads were directing the violence of individual skinheads in particular places. So, a very important organization that pursued a very important legal theory that helped break the back of the Ku Klux Klan, as an active and vital force in the American life.

KOPPEL: And led, I might add, as I'm sure Congressman Davis will want me to, by an exceptional man, a white southerner by the name of Morris Dees, who was the creative genius behind this notion, this legal notion which Congressman Davis has conceded to me. Nobody really thought it had a snowball's chance of succeeding, but it did. And it did a lot of good in that sense.

CONAN: And you also point out, Congressman Davis, in the film that we - you know, we think of lynching as something that occurs with, you know, Panama hats, and sears sucker suits, and old black and white images. This, as you point out, happened in the era of color television.

Representative DAVIS: All too recent, and I make the point on the documentary that sometimes, young people have this mindset that anything - there are only black and white pictures of it, it happened a long time ago, if it's color, it's fairly recent.

And we think, well, lynchings and the explicit violence that we associate with the '30s, and '40s, and '50s, well, just that we think that that's a long ago time frame. The reality is that some of this violence build into a much closer period of time. 1981 wasn't that long ago, unless you think a 27-year-old person is an old person. 1981 is not that long ago.

And I'm glad that the Discovery Channel did this documentary. I'm glad Ted Koppel got interested in this story, because it's not one that most Americans know. Most Americans have never heard of Donald. Most Americans are not aware that a lynching from a tree happened in 1981, and it's important for us to remember that, because as we obviously may be on the verge of a remarkable political event happening in this country, Barack Obama's nomination and possible election of the presidency in a few weeks, we still ought to be reminded as Ted points out, that racism has never disappeared as a factor in American life. The most active overt kinds of racism have never disappeared, and you can't fully understand where we've come as a country, unless you have some grounding in the recency of the struggle.

CONAN: We're talking with Congressman Artur Davis and with Ted Koppel, whose documentary, "The Last Lynching," airs tonight on the Discovery Channel. If you'd like to call us, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Kaye is on the line. Kaye, calling us from Tallahassee in Florida.

KAYE (Caller): Hi. I love your show. I listen to it all the time.

CONAN: Thank you.

KAYE: Hope you're well.

CONAN: Thank you.

KAYE: I was calling, because this is an issue that was close to my family once when my brother and I who were young. Well, younger, growing up in the late '70s, early '80s. Our grandfather who was raised in a town between Tallahassee and Jacksonville that, oh, remained unnamed, talked about how, I guess just for kicks, they kidnapped a black person, and took him out to an oak three and just shot him.

And I couldn't really understand the point of why he was telling us this, I'm sorry.

CONAN: You might want to turn down the radio, because it will be less confusing.

KAYE: I'm sorry. It bothers me that there are people so like this out there that could endanger the progress of this country, with the possibility of the outcome of our election, and I hadn't heard about this incidence in Mobile, but I hope we get past it soon.

CONAN: And you were a kid, and your grandfather told you this. How did it make you feel?

KAYE: Well, we were both distraught, me and my brother both. He was an old southern white man. He - that was very much the mentality down here for many generations, and we were kind of brought up with it as, that this is something that women of our family kind of made the men hush that kind of talk by the time we were going up.

Since we had already been a few years out from the civil-rights movement, and we were both upset by it. I don't know what - if he was just spitting yet another story like people of that generation did.

But it was - we couldn't understand why he was telling us this, or whether he was trying to forgive himself somehow, or never think like he did, or whatever the purpose was. And I never brought it up, and I don't know if my brother ever brought it up with him.

We never talked about it after it was over with, but just to think that we were attached to some kind activity like that, and they had done this before his pre-World War II era days, and even though that was ages ago, it's very hard to think that you were just a generation or two away from that kind of activity.

CONAN: Ages ago, but within living memory.

KAYE: Yeah.

CONAN: I guess, that's one of the points of your story, and one of the points of Ted Koppel's film.

KAYE: Yeah.

CONAN: Kaye, thank you very much for the phone call.

KAYE: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Appreciate the call. We're going to take more of your calls, when we come back from a short break. We're going to continue talking about the documentary, 'The Last Lynching," which airs tonight on the Discovery channel.

Our guests, Ted Koppel and Congressman Artur Davis, who as a young man worked on the case of Michael Donald, who was killed just 27 years ago, and he's body hung from a tree in Mobile, Alabama. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tonight, the Discovery Channel airs Ted Koppel's new documentary about the murder of Michael Donald. It' called "The Last Lynching."

We're talking with him this hour and with Congressman Artur Davis, who represents the seventh district of Alabama. If lynching is part of your family story on either side, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org, and you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And I wanted to ask you, Congressman Davis. You were a young man, a very young man when this murder happened...

Representative DAVIS: Mm.

CONAN: And just a little bit older...

Rep. DAVIS: Mm-hm.

CONAN: When you worked on the case. Did you see this at that time as a relic? Did you see this as the last lynching?

Rep. DAVIS: No. Growing up in the South, unfortunately, you're all too accustomed to stories about racial violence. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1983, there was a series of shootings of unarmed black men. There was an incident in which a couple of black under cover - a couple of white - I'm sorry, a couple of white undercover police officers became involved in an altercation with a black family.

And to this day, no one knows exactly what happened, but we know that the black family was brutally beaten after they were taken into custody. That happened two years after Michael Donald's lynching. I grew up in a very racially, polarized environment, where blacks and whites were very much separated politically, economically, socially, legally in terms of their legal prospects in the system.

We're obviously a much better country and a much better state now. But I think again, it's important for people to realize that in anytime you assemble a collection of human beings, you're going to have a collection of malevolent impulses and noble impulses. Magnify that across a country of hundreds of millions of people, and you're going to have a lot of people who are very bad, a lot of people who are trying their best to move us toward a goal of being a more perfect union. Both the good and bad are part of the American narrative, and to fully understand our country, we have to talk about both. We have to talk about America in its best and in its worst.

CONAN: Yet, certainly, the nomination of Senator Obama has increased - we're all talking about race and to some degree, we're focusing on some ugly racial - ugly parts of us that we had sort of put aside, maybe. Is it good for us to look at ourselves that way? Or does it worry you sometimes that this streak within us is coming out again?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, there were some ugly moments in the campaign trail last week. Unfortunately, we've come to the point in American politics, where there are all too many ugly moments, because of ideology, because of race. There's an author named Ron Perlstein, who's written a wonderful book called, "Nixonland," which make the argument that for a period of time in the 1960s, early 1970s, a disconcertingly large number of Americans were killed at the hands of other Americans, who killed them for one simple reason.

They thought there were lesser beings, because they disagreed with them over politics. Some of those slayings we looked back and we clearly see them as racial, others, many American have never heard about. But they were more ideological in nature, but it's all a part of our recent history. The use of violence as Ted Koppel pointed out, the use of violence to intimidate, to suppress people from getting engaged politically and getting engaged socially. And what the color points to, is just the randomization of violence.

Ordinary people deciding that because they think other people are lesser beings than they are, that they can resort to violence, and resort to using force against them. That is all too common a strain throughout our national history, and it's a strain that we need to recognize. Thankfully, it's not by any means the dominant part of who we are, and had been for a very long time. But we need to know if that strain is still there.

CONAN: Getting another caller on the line. This is Madeline. Madeline with us from Philadelphia.

MADELINE (Caller): Yes. I'm in Philadelphia now, but I was from Mobile, Alabama, and I was on one of the capital-murder jury trial for that lynching. It was one of the later (unintelligible), I think 1986.

And as a lifelong resident of Mobile, I was just very, very proud to stand up to do the right thing, and to let people know that there are Southerners who are courageous, who are brave, and who want to do the right thing, and always have been. And I was very proud to stand up, and do that at that time.

CONAN: So, was this the trial of "Tiger" Knowles or Henry Hays?

MADELIENE: It was for the accessories of the crime, and I don't remember the name. I think "Tiger" Knowles was already in the federal penitentiary at the time. I think there was a son-in-law of the clan leader, who was involved in the beating of the young man.

And one of his friends, I recall that they had stayed up whole night playing cards. It was a small band of them. They were trying to revive the clan. They met at a Kentucky Fried Chicken once a week in Theodore, Alabama.

And they kept talking about how they wanted to get, and they used the flying term, and finally they got up their nerve and did so, and then, spent the rest of that night playing cards in their blood-stained clothes, if I recall correctly.

And then when the gentlemen who lived on Hernon(ph) Avenue - a man who lived on Hernon Avenue got up in the morning, he saw what had been done. If I recall correctly, and it's been quite a while.

CONAN: Sure. Ted Koppel, I wanted to ask you this. There's an extraordinary scene in your documentary. One of those men, one of the killers of Michael Donald was "Tiger" Knowles. That's his nickname, of course.

And was someone who came to regret his actions, and turned states' evidence and testified against his accomplices. And there's an extraordinary moment from the film, we're going to play a clip from the movie now. And this is where he turns to Michael Donald's mother, just before his sentence is pronounced.

(Soundbite of movie "The Last Lynching")

Mr. JAMES "TIGER" KNOWLES: I asked Mrs. 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 forgave me, in front of everyone. After that, it didn't matter what anyone else thought. My Mom and Dad, who were there, I cared about them.

I know they were quiet. But I was talking to Mrs. Donald. I couldn't bring her son back. I couldn't change anything that had happened, and she forgave me. She forgave me in front of God and everybody. That's all that matters.

Unidentified Man #2: Pretty amazing moment.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, it was. Yes, it was. She was a pretty amazing woman. Excuse me.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, we can't forget that this is as much as her story, as her son's.

KOPPEL: Indeed, but I want to go back to the caller you had a moment ago, because the lady is absolutely right. And the point deserves to be made and reemphasized. In the civil trial, and that's actually the one that I think Tiger Knowles was talking about, where he apologized directly to the mother of the man that he had killed.

In that civil trial, there was a deliberate effort on Morris Dees' part, and on the part of the Southern Poverty Law Center to have an all-white jury. Morris Dees most especially wanted an all-white jury to make exactly the point of that lady was making, and that is that times have changed, people's mindset has changed, and that it would be possible for an all-white Southern jury to bring in an appropriate verdict in this case, and they did.

And there was another point that needs to be made, and that is a generational one, and that goes back to your earlier caller, who recalled that conversation with her grandfather. Things have changed in the United States, but I think it's no accident that Barack Obama has such a huge following among young people.

Among whom, I would say, there is great deal less racism today than there is among middle aged and older people in this country. Where racisms still exists, it tends to exist more among older Americans than younger Americans, and that's a good thing.

CONAN: Madeline, you still with us?

MADELINE: Yes, I am.

CONAN: Does he have that right?

MADELINE: He absolutely does have it right, and I'm just so proud that the story is being told, and that Ted Koppel is telling it, because we have to move on, and I think Southerners want to move on, and want to do the right thing. And that's what we've got to do, we've got to stand up and always do the right thing. No matter how hard it is.

CONAN: Madeline, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MADELINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now from Post Digital Recording Studios in Las Vegas, Nevada, is Todd Robinson, a professor of African-American and U.S. history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And thank you very much for being with us today.

Prof. TODD ROBINSON (African American and U.S. History, University of Nevada): Oh, it's good to join you Neal, Tom, and also Congressman Davis.

CONAN: And I know that you - well, of course, as part of your studies, lynching and African American History, inextricably intertwined, also though, a part of your family history.

Prof. ROBINSON: Absolutely, we had an incident on July 4th of 1930, whereby two of our family members were lynched in (unintelligible), Alabama, in Sumter County, by a mob of roughly 50 people. My grandfather was a young man at that time and he fled for his life, and was actually taken in by a white family who were refused to let the mob search their home. And because of that, our family was able to continue on.

CONAN: There is such enormous drama and such pain involved in these stories. How do you tell your students today about it in a way that makes it meaningful for them, in a way that makes it not seem as though this was the distant past?

Prof. ROBINSON: Well, you know, it's funny, I'm very happy that Ted Koppel's put together this piece. This is such a deeply rooted part of American history. I often phrase it as America's favorite past time. I mean, it involved more than 50 people at different points in time, it's for the lynching.

Sometimes crowds numbered as high as 10,000 plus. People got dressed in their Sunday best. They enjoyed cocktails, and watched the dismembering of black bodies, and the devaluing of black bodies. In the case of my family, Esau Robinson had his eyes picked out with an icepick.

They dismembered other body parts, and they proceeded to keep those body parts as souvenirs, as memorabilia for a day well spent, if you will. And as you probably know, there were numerous postcards that traveled freely in the mail, that memorialized these occasions, and as a triumph of white superiority.

So, I try to tell them in a way that's very real, and also talk about the context of generational racism or the transference of racial ideologies, which is - works both ways. You can witness that particular lynching or incidents, or hear stories along those lines and go a different way. But in the case of Hays, his father was also a former member of the KKK, and he followed his father's pathway.

CONAN: This was one of the men who murdered Michael Donald, yeah.

Prof. ROBINSON: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. I wonder, we are - as Rep. DAVIS has said, he comes from a state that is better than it was 27 years ago. The country is better than it was then, yet it is certainly not a perfect country, by far from perfect union. Do you worry sometimes as we have the nomination of an African-American for the highest office in the land?

That if Barack Obama should win the election, some people worry that white America will then conclude, well, this is done, this is over with, this has been accomplished.

Prof. ROBINSON: I know that's a concern among a number of people, and certainly, I hold that reservation to a certain extent. We need to acknowledge that there has been progress in America certainly. But Barack Obama's historical first does not erase racism. It's not necessarily as overt. There's certainly covert actions of it.

That being said, I mean, the recent incidents in Oregon with the mock lynching of Obama, lets you know that there's still real sentiments there that deeply divide this society. And in actuality, I think the last lynching might have been in 1998 with James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. And then again, we see another instance of the overt context of this racial divide in America.

Hopefully, with the case of Doug - Governor Wilder in Virginia in 1989, people are talking about the Bradley effect, hopefully, Barack Obama and Americans can actually step up and assess the situation on merit alone, and not use race as a barometer to judge.

CONAN: We're talking...

Rep. DAVIS: Neal, may I jump in on that?

CONAN: If you give me just a moment. We're talking with Todd Robinson, with Congressman Artur Davis, and Ted Koppel. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Congressman, go ahead, please.

Rep. DAVIS: No, I just want to make a quick point, following up on the professor's observation. What Senator Obama's election will mean is that, a highly-gifted, highly-talented individual, who's running in the perfect political climate, where the party he's running against has been discredited and has an unpopular president, can be elected.

And we still don't know what the margin will be. By definition, that is a somewhat limited story. It doesn't tell you a whole lot about the prospects of young black men on the South Side of Chicago, or young black men who are living in Sumpter County, which by the way I represent, the county where the lynching occurred, the professor described.

In that particular county today, something like 31 percent of the blacks who live in that county, live below the poverty line, something like 42 percent of the black men in that county live below the poverty line, and a disconcertingly large number of them, well over a third of the black men in that county at some point will come into contact with the criminal justice system during their lifetimes. That would be the case even if there is a black man in the White House.

When Governor Wilder won in Virginia 20 years ago, I didn't mean that racism disappeared in Virginia. And for that matter, Senator Obama as being a senator from Illinois, doesn't mean the racism doesn't exist in Illinois. I think what we have to understand is the story of race is a divided one in our country. It's always so many steps forward, so many steps backward at the same time.

But I do hope will happen if Obama is successful, is that it will move us into a window where white Americans are more willing to contemplate the idea that a black American could lead or could represent their interest, and not just the interests of black people. But it will always be a divided mixed story when we talk about race.

CONAN: And Congressman Davis, I am glad, you, inserted the "if," in these three weeks to election day, so we note your prediction, but it is still three weeks out.

Rep. DAVIS: That's right.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, let me ask you. We just have a couple of minutes left, but I did want to ask you, other people have told us why they thought it was important for you to do this film at this particular time. Why did you make this film at this particular time? We started talking about messages. What is your message?

KOPPEL: Well, I think an appropriate message, Neal, perhaps to lead the story on, is the notion that bigotry, unfortunately, is always a - it expands and it contracts almost simultaneously. We elect Jack Kennedy President, and there is a temptation to say, well, anti-Catholicism has ended. Clearly it had not.

If Senator Obama is elected president, there will be a tendency to feel that there is less racism against blacks. I think that's - that would be a justifiable conclusion, but at the same time, remember that people are making a great deal of the fact that it's Barack Hussein Obama, and when you say Hussein and you leave the impression in people's minds that he either is a Muslim or has a Muslim connection, what that reflects is the extraordinary bigotry that is growing in some circles in this country against Muslims.

The fact that it is a different kind of bigotry doesn't make it any better, and before we start congratulating ourselves too much on how far we've come, I think at the same time we need to be on an even keel looking ahead and saying, we still have a ways to go.

CONAN: Indeed. Let us thank our guests. Todd Robinson, appreciate your time today.

Prof. ROBINSON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Todd Robinson, assistant professor of African American and U.S. history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with us from a studio there in Las Vegas. Congressman Artur Davis, thank you for your time today.

Rep. DAVIS: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Representative Davis of Congress represents the 7th District of Alabama with us today from the studios of member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Ted Koppel joined us from his home in Maryland, and Ted, next time let's talk about North Korea.

KOPPEL: That's an idea.

CONAN: Ted Koppel with us many Mondays here on Talk of the Nation. Coming up, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol joins us on the opinion page with some advice for John McCain, fire your campaign. Stay with us. I am Neal Conan, it's the Talk of The Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: