orris Dees, who engineered the civil suit for Mrs. Donald, understands her reliance on the Lord. Born in Alabama in 1936, he was raised in the Baptist heartland. Like his schoolmates, he wanted to be a farmer; unlike them, he was also a born salesman, who used his blond hair, blue eyes and effervescent personality to make a fortune.
Dees’s business career began at the University of Alabama when his mother sent him a birthday cake. That inspired Dees to send postcards to his schoolmates’ parents, asking if they’d like his ‘Bama Cake Service to deliver birthday cakes to their sons and daughters. ”We got 25 percent response,” Dees says. ”You couldn’t do that in the real world.” After graduating from the University of Alabama law school, Dees formed a direct-mail publishing company that eventually shipped 5 million cookbooks a year. He sold his company in 1970, then turned his attention to politics.
”I got interested in George McGovern strictly because of his views on Vietnam,” Dees says. He and a colleague wrote a seven-page letter for the candidate. ”Everybody laughed at it, said it was too long. McGovern said he couldn’t send it out. I said O.K., but I mailed 350,000 copies anyway. In direct mail, a good response is a 1 to 2 percent return; our letter pulled 17 percent, with an average contribution of $25.”
In the 1972 Presidential campaign, Dees’s letters garnered an unheard-of $24 million. Dees asked only for permission to use McGovern’s mailing list to approach potential contributors to his Southern Poverty Law Center. The center became active in death row cases and defended the rights of poor workers, white and black, who were felt to be victims of discrimination.
In 1979, Dees and Bill Stanton, the center’s research director, took on their first case involving the Klan. They became interested in the possibility of finishing off the Klan through civil litigation, and, to help law enforcement officials, they founded Klanwatch, an investigative unit that tracks Klan activities and publishes a newsletter. Klansmen noticed; the S.P.L.C. became the Klan’s favorite opponent.
In 1983, Klansmen torched S.P.L.C. headquarters in Montgomery; in 1984, when Denver talk-show host Alan Berg was murdered by a far-right fanatic, Dees was No. 2 on the killer’s hit list. In that same year, Louis Beam, a leader of a paramilitary Klan, challenged Dees by registered mail to a duel. ”Your mother,” he wrote, in part, ”why I can just see her now, her heart just bursting with pride as you, for the first time in your life, exhibit the qualities of a man.” Then Beam ”visited” the S.P.L.C. in an apparent effort to intimidate Dees.
From its new headquarters, dubbed the Southern Affluence Law Center because of its stylish glass-and-steel architecture, the S.P.L.C. undertook its most massive anti-Klan project in 1984 — using Mrs. Donald’s civil suit to dismantle Robert Shelton’s branch of the Klan. Shelton’s men had been involved in the beating of Freedom Riders at the Birmingham bus station in 1961, in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 and in the shooting of Viola Liuzzo near Selma in 1965. The challenge for Dees, Stanton and S.P.L.C. investigator Joe Roy was to locate former Klansmen who would testify that they were acting under orders when they participated in those beatings and killings — and, if possible, convince Klansmen involved in more recent racial incidents to come forward.
In the 18 months it took to prepare the case, Beulah Mae Donald says, Morris Dees didn’t neglect her. ”We didn’t meet until the trial, but Morris and I would talk on the phone. He’d say, ‘You still ready to go through with this?’ And he did everything possible — he sent $35, $50 every few weeks. He helped when we needed it.”
Although Mrs. Donald hadn’t attended the 1983 trial, she decided to push herself and go to the civil trial. ”If they could stand to kill Michael,” she reasoned, ”I can stand to see their faces.” But she couldn’t look at Tiger Knowles, the first witness, as he gave the jurors an unemotional account of the events leading up to the murder. And she cried silently when Knowles stepped off the witness stand to demonstrate how he helped kill her son.
Mrs. Donald was more composed when former Klansmen testified that they had been directed by Klan leaders to harass, intimidate and kill blacks. She had no difficulty enduring defense witnesses — the six Mobile Klansmen and the lawyer for the United Klans of America cross-examined Dees’s witnesses, but called none of their own. Just four days after the trial had started, it was time for the closing arguments.
At the lunch break on that day, Tiger Knowles called Morris Dees to his cell. He wanted, he said, to speak in court. ”Whatever you do, don’t play lawyer,” Dees advised him. ”Just get up and say what you feel.”
When court resumed, the judge nodded to Knowles. ”I’ve got just a few things to say,” Knowles began, as he stood in front of the jury box. ”I know that people’s tried to discredit my testimony…I’ve lost my family. I’ve got people after me now. Everything I said is true… I was acting as a Klansman when I done this. And I hope that people learn from my mistake… I do hope you decide a judgment against me and everyone else involved.”
Then Knowles turned to Beulah Mae Donald, and, as they locked eyes for the first time, begged for her forgiveness. ”I can’t bring your son back,” he said, sobbing and shaking. ”God knows if I could trade places with him, I would. I can’t. Whatever it takes — I have nothing. But I will have to do it. And if it takes me the rest of my life to pay it, any comfort it may bring, I hope it will.”
By this time, jurors were openly weeping. The judge wiped away a tear.
”I do forgive you,” Mrs. Donald said. ”From the day I found out who you all was, I asked God to take care of y’all, and He has.”
Four hours later, the jury announced its $7 million award.
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