Forty years seems like a long time but if Michael Donald hadn’t been lynched on March 21, 1981, he wouldn’t even be 60 years old yet. If the teenager’s body had not been hung in the predawn darkness on a residential street in Mobile, Alabama, he might be holding grandkids or serving as a church deacon now.
His case became a crucible for a town in denial about its capacity for brutality, for shortcomings in law enforcement and governance, and for a detective who shed undeserved tarnish for an earlier near-lynching through his pivotal role in finally solving Donald’s murder.
Start with the undeserved tarnish. As tensions percolated in Mobile in the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan was “sufficiently accepted that the Mobile Register listed its rallies the way the paper did high school football games,” as Laurence Leamer wrote in The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan.
A 1975 Klan rally in a Mobile suburb drew a reported 1,000-plus attendees. A subsequent march resulted in skirmishes with counter-protesters.
In late March of 1976, 27-year-old Glenn Diamond and a friend were seized by Mobile police for “suspicious activity” outside a darkened McDonald’s. A robbery confession was wanted. Rope was grabbed from an officer’s car as the handcuffed man was pulled toward a tree.
“He’s lying and we ought to hang him,” one officer threatened, according to trial testimony.
Diamond said he was pulled upward, heels off the ground, the noose untightened but bearing his weight. He choked and nearly passed out before it stopped.
Eight officers were eventually suspended. One steadfastly stood apart from the others.
“I wasn’t there,” Wilbur Williams maintained. The three-year veteran, just 27 years old, had helped colleagues pull Diamond from a hiding spot after the suspect initially fled. Then Williams answered his radio.
“Two drunks at the Greyhound bus station got in a fight and one stomped the index finger off the other one,” Williams said in recollection.
Once at the station, the policeman grabbed the mangled finger and wrapped the maimed hand in a towel from the bus station café.
“I didn’t think there was any need for taxpayers to pay for an ambulance, so I loaded him into the blue-and-white and we got cookin’,” Williams said.
By the time Williams finished at the hospital and answered another call, the Diamond ordeal was long done.
“I walked into the docket room carrying another drunk and asked if they ever booked one of those guys on robbery,” Williams said.
By Williams’ account, Diamond was standing on the street in cuffs when the cop had left for the bus station. So, he was stunned to be suspended along with the other officers on scene.
“All I could say is, yeah, [Williams] was indicted. I couldn’t say he was there,” Diamond told reporters at the time.
“He would have remembered me,” Williams said. “I was the biggest one there and I was the only one with a beard.”
According to Williams, one rookie officer gave a 30-page account that had “four different statements of what I did and what he thought I did.” Williams’ attorney, Jim Atchison, filed a motion to review the rookie’s grand jury and subsequent trial testimony. Discrepancies quickly convinced Circuit Judge Hubert Robertson to dismiss charges against Williams. The rookie recanted his testimony.
If Williams wasn’t there, if he answered a call and records verified his presence elsewhere, why had he been swept up?
Back then, Williams had been vice president of the Mobile County Law Enforcement Association, a police union. He pondered political motivations spurred by his criticisms of the force.
“We were so backwards, at least 25 years,” he told a reporter in 1990. “I felt the citizens were not getting what they should in a police department.”
He also mentioned their push for collective bargaining in the state legislature, then gaining momentum. He readily admitted bad blood between himself and then-District Attorney Charles Graddick, and a possible influence on the rookie cop.
“I think there were some people that probably figured I needed to go,” Williams said.
Instead, he weathered a seven-month suspension but emerged with back pay and a shot at the sergeant’s exam he missed during suspension.
“Out of, I think it was one hundred-and-something people that took it, I came out sixth on the written test and number 13 overall. That’s why I got promoted a year later,” Williams said.
Of the other officers suspended, only patrolman Michael Patrick was fired.
In 1981, America was moving forward. Regular space shuttle flights began, MTV premiered, and IBM released its first PC. Mobile’s civic leaders, though, were content to milk the past and promote the idea their city was “different” than other Alabama towns and racially tranquil.
“It’s five years after Glenn Diamond but the government is still the same. The city commission is the same in ‘76 March as it is in ‘81 March, still using taxpayer money to fight a change in legal status to open up the doors of government to more people,” historian Scotty Kirkland said.
A pending federal suit, Mobile v. Bolden, challenged the city’s three-member commission system as discriminatory. Black Mobilians were 36.9 percent of the general population in 1940, 35.4 percent in 1970, but had never been elected to the commission or any other city-wide office.
In the four years since he became a sergeant, Williams had moved to detective. He was coming on duty around dawn on March 21, a favor for night shift detective O.C. Lockett who wanted to tend to his sailboat that day.
“I heard the radio traffic and they’re calling everybody, not saying what it is but calling everybody to Herndon Avenue,” Williams said.
He arrived within five minutes. A half-dozen policemen were on the scene.
The neighborhood in Mobile’s older sector was racially mixed and poor. Earlier, an elderly resident had walked to a nearby newspaper machine and spied a shadowy figure under a camphor tree. The person was still there when he returned.
“There’s a suspicious Black male hanging around here,” he told a police operator. When the police cut Michael Donald’s nearly ground-level body from the tree, the caller “damn near went to his knees,” Williams recalled.
Williams and Lockett immediately blocked the street at both ends as more officials arrived. For hours, the detectives hunted clues on hands and knees, across the street and sidewalks.
“We eventually found just one drop of blood across the street from the body,” Williams said.
The young Black victim had no identification. From his head, down his blue jacket and jeans, he was covered in dried blood and odd soil.
“It was funny dirt. If you thumped it, it was like powder,” Williams said.
Despite the rope around his neck, the victim’s slit throat appeared fatal. Defensive wounds covered his hands, his arms bent. Rigor mortis set in long before he was propped up and lashed to the tree. On his head was a “pretty hideous-looking, herringbone-type bruise.”
“We knew that if we found the actual crime scene, there would be a mother lode of evidence there,” Williams said.
As the coroner left with the body, Williams had explicit instructions.
“Please, do not discuss the time of death with anybody. Tell them you don't know, you haven't figured it out yet, something, because we don't need a single soul knowing the time of death,” Williams said.
Behind a Baptist church blocks away, a billfold with Michael Donald’s ID and a blood-stained sheet were found in a trash dumpster.
Donald had lived with his mother, Beulah Mae, in Orange Grove Housing Project, a mile east of where he was found. The youngest of seven children, the 19-year-old worked as a paper stuffer at the Mobile Press-Register and studied brick masonry at a technical college. He enjoyed basketball, dancing at a local recreational center and sported a clean reputation.
“He’d never been arrested, never had a ticket,” Williams said. “It looked like all he did was play basketball, work and go home.”
On March 20, Donald watched the hometown University of South Alabama Jaguars in the NIT basketball tournament before walking to a nearby store to buy his sister’s cigarettes. That was 11 p.m. Michael never returned home.
Word spread quickly about the commotion on Herndon Avenue. Among the early morning bystanders was state senator and civil rights activist Michael Figures. When he noticed lead detective Williams and recalled his link to Glenn Diamond, Figures was shocked.
The attorney confronted Williams. His doubts about fairness were clear.
“I assured him if he gave me a chance, I would prove to him the Glenn Diamond thing certainly wasn’t indicative of my character or abilities. I would prove him wrong,” Williams said.
By the time the Donald family was contacted, news reports had spread. So did the story of a cross burned at the Mobile County Courthouse the same night.
Reporters, onlookers, journalists, law enforcement watched as the victim’s distraught family arrived. Grief washed over the street.
“That’s when it broke out. It was a terrible, terrible scene,” Williams said.
Williams’ old nemesis, Graddick, was now state attorney general so new Mobile DA Chris Galanos was on the scene when a whip-thin, older white man approached law enforcement.
“My name’s Bennie Jack Hays and I own all this,” he said and sharply gestured to houses across the street, including where the blood drop was found. He wasn’t shocked, just angry.
“He was raising hell because he couldn't get to his property, because police officers wouldn't let him drive on Herndon Avenue,” Williams recalled.
Hays walked to a Ford pick-up truck where his slightly built 26-year-old son, Henry, and a stockier white kid, James “Tiger” Knowles, surveyed the drama. Figures snapped a photo of the unfazed trio.
The lead detective eyed them. He talked to the trio, glanced at their vehicles to see if anything might give probable cause for a search. No luck.
Williams called the ensuing investigation “bedlam.” The police force had an interim chief, and, despite rising murders, there was no designated homicide division.
“There was no supervision, no command, no control,” Williams said.
Officers acted independently, called confidants, guarded information. Stories and ostensible leads materialized randomly, drawn to a $1,000 reward.
Tension roiled. Figures publicly urged “cool” in the strained Black community. Mobile’s traditional power brokers chafed at national coverage of the city’s new ignominy.
A coworker of Donald’s who Williams recalled was about the “same age, same physical appearance, same round face” told police he was the intended target due to his interracial marriage. Inspection gobbled resources.
“You have to look at everything. I don’t want something exculpatory coming out in court six months later,” Williams said.
An informant named Johnny Lee Kelly said he met three self-described “Cajuns”—Ralph Hayes and brothers Jimmy and Johnny Edgars—the night Donald died. He claimed the blood-spotted group told of “hospital whipping” a Black guy over illegal drug debts. Typical of the investigative chaos, neither Williams nor Lockett learned of Kelly’s story until days after he initially told authorities.
Williams never bought Kelly’s tale. By then, they knew Donald died around 12:30 a.m. while Ralph Hayes’ cab ride to Herndon Avenue wasn’t until 2:30 a.m.
D.A. Galanos insisted on pursuing the Cajuns. The informant was bound for the grand jury when Williams locked horns with the prosecutor.
“We went at it. I told him you’re going to have a witness saying Donald was dead before Hayes was even on Herndon Avenue. Hayes didn’t kill him by proxy. This is the dumbest damned thing,” Williams said.
In another lead, a young woman told police she had been in a friend’s car on Herndon Avenue just before 5:30 a.m. when Michael Donald approached their Pontiac Le Mans.
“Hey, man, you got something for my head?” she claimed Donald asked, then leaned into their moonroof to accept a pre-rolled joint. She alleged Donald was with three other men who matched the Cajuns’ description.
The detective said “night creatures” from Mobile’s seamier circles volunteered stories of Donald as a pimp, a prostitute, a drug dealer. It conflicted with the victim’s predominant, upstanding portrayal.
“Well, we have to start asking those questions. It’s part of (the) investigation (process) and it just destroyed any relationship we had with the Donald family,” Williams said.
When Rev. Jesse Jackson led thousands of Black Mobilians in a march, it made national TV. Angrier protesters called for Black citizens to fire on suspected Klan members.
Williams felt Galanos was under immense pressure to convict “anyone” and end the case, to salvage the sleepy city’s image. Mobile had escaped the civil rights era without the infamy of other Alabama cities. It wasn’t “Bomb-ingham” but it wasn’t much better.
“These Mobile-by-comparison stories in the late ’50s and early ’60s, where people said, ‘These [measures] are happening in Mobile,’ created this false impression things are markedly better because they're not on the national news,” Kirkland said.
When others insisted the crime couldn’t have been Klan-related, Williams wouldn’t dismiss it.
“I had trouble working the investigation because I spent most of my time trying to keep innocent people out of the damn electric chair,” Williams said.
A fresh start was needed. Galanos formed a task force out of his office.
“He got me, Walter Pickett, and Vince Richardson assigned,” Williams said. “Then he brought in investigator Bob Eddy from the state to work with us.”
They rebuilt the case, re-interviewed every witness.
Polygraph tests for the young couple in the Le Mans delivered conflicting reports. After months, Williams had enough of wasted time. The witnesses agreed to visit a state facility just north of Mobile where they underwent hypnosis and sodium pentothal. She finally admitted she was lying simply to try and close the case.
“The kicker was she admitted to the FBI 40-something days earlier she was lying. Do you think the FBI shared that with us? No,” Williams said.
Williams interviewed a friend of Johnny Lee Kelly’s who deflated the informant’s story. It turned out Kelly was trading info for lighter treatment in prior pending charges. Instead, Kelly was later convicted on two counts of perjury.
“Let me tell you, when those Cajuns got off, everything sho’ nuff hit the fan,” Williams said.
Investigators zeroed in on the three cold faces captured on film that morning amidst Herndon Avenue’s furor. Interviews with neighbors turned up stories about Hays senior’s Klan leadership.
“He was just an angry, old, mad-ass person, mad at the world, at everybody and everything,” Williams said. “He hated Blacks. I bet he didn’t even have a pair of black socks.”
Investigators discovered Bennie Jack’s son-in-law, Frank Cox, and another associate, Teddy Kyzar, were also Klansmen. They were all on Herndon that night.
Authorities needed a weak link. Knowles seemed the most vulnerable.
“We talked about it and got Galanos to impanel a new grand jury, but we were having so much trouble with witnesses he got the U.S. attorney to help. They could just keep calling them in and calling them in,” Williams said.
Insurance hijinks through the mail exposed Knowles to federal charges. Then his bail was reset, so authorities arrived to arrest him in front of his parents.
“They kept after Tiger Knowles’ family and it had his momma so upset, he finally went and hired an attorney,” Williams said.
Knowles’ lawyer called a pair of friends, captains from the Mobile Police Department, to his office before long. Williams referenced a report he copied.
“There in the office was Tiger Knowles and he confessed to the murder of Michael Donald to Capt. Tommy Calhoun and Capt. John Phillips,” Williams said. “From there, they took him over to meet with FBI Agent Jim Bodman.”
Just before Michael Donald was murdered, a jury had hung in the trial of a Black man, Josephus Anderson, charged with shooting a white police officer. Knowles described how it incensed Bennie Jack’s clutch of Kluxers.
“If a n---er can get away with killing a white man, then a white man should get away with killing a n---er,” Bennie Jack shrieked.
Henry Hays and Knowles sought random revenge. They left Herndon Avenue after seeing mistrial coverage on the 10 p.m. news. When they spotted Michael Donald walking alone, they forced him into Hays’ black Buick at gunpoint.
They crossed Mobile Bay and drove deep into Baldwin County’s moonlit woods. Down a winding road to a dirt pit near a garbage dump, they made Donald exit the car.
“That’s when it became fight or flight,” Williams said.
Donald launched into Knowles, knocked the gun from him. They pummeled Donald until he managed to wield a tree limb. After wresting the weapon from the victim, the Klansmen pulled a noose from the Buick.
Knowles struggled to hold Donald as Hays slipped a noose on the terrified youngster. Hays planted one of his Vietnam-era military boots on Donald’s face and pulled, to extract every iota of life.
Valiantly, Donald rose again. The assailants clubbed him with the branch.
Knowles heaved at the rope so hard he broke Donald’s skin and a neck bone. At last, the Black teen was still.
Finally, Hays grabbed a utility knife and opened Donald’s throat. They dumped the body into the trunk for the return trip.
“That Buick Wildcat had a rusted hole in the trunk, and they traveled up and down several dirt roads, so that was the dusty, powdery substance. It filled up in the trunk,” Williams said.
Back on Herndon Avenue, the murderers waited, then clumsily scrambled to hoist the body into a tree. When done, Donald’s feet almost touched the ground.
It was hardly as lofty a lynching as they had planned. It was still as ghastly.
“How all that happened on Herndon that night—going off, bringing [Donald] back, sitting on the body until just before daylight, taking the body down the street to put it up in the tree—while the police were all over the place, all night long, and how in the world no one saw anything, I guess it was beginner’s luck,” Williams said.
Once inside, the other Klansmen asked why Knowles’ shirt was bloody. He cited gay-bashing to general laughter. The murderers changed clothes while Cox and Kyzar left to ignite the three-foot cross on the courthouse lawn.
Once everyone returned home, Henry Hays phoned TV and radio stations. Anonymous and curt, he told them a body was displayed on Herndon Avenue.
Williams never had occasion to speak with Michael Figures after the case was closed. He never heard if the activist and politico was satisfied with the detective’s work. Figures’ brother Thomas also proved vital, prosecuting the crime as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Both Figures brothers are gone. Michael died in 1996 at age 48. Thomas died in 2015.
The rivalry between local and federal law enforcement during the investigation remained. It lurked in the old detective’s memory.
“I asked a couple of FBI friends: ‘Y’all claim to have solved this but did you testify?’” Williams said and smiled. “They said there was nothing for them to testify to. I said, ‘Well, Lockett and I spent a total of about eight hours on the witness stand so I guess we were a little more involved.’”
Williams chuckled. “They kind of got pissed, but it wouldn’t be the last time.”
In 1985, the City of Mobile restructured its city government under federal mandate. Black citizens held elected office for the first time in the 20th century.
“I wish this was like the Book of Isaiah looking forward to the coming Messiah, where it says, ‘…by his wounds, we are healed,’” Kirkland said. “Part of me wants to say that's the story of Michael Donald, but I don't think the facts bear that out.”
Tiger Knowles cooperated with prosecution to avoid the death penalty. He served 25 years in prison.
Henry Hays was executed by the state in 1997. He was the first white man executed for killing a Black person in Alabama in six decades.
In 1989, Frank Cox was convicted as an accomplice and served 11 years.
Teddy Kyzar wasn’t charged. He died in October 2020 at age 63.
Bennie Jack Hays was indicted but collapsed in court. He died awaiting trial.
Wilbur Williams rose to the rank of major in the Mobile Police Department, working as a detective in several of the city’s most notorious crimes. He later served as police chief in Andalusia, Alabama, and is now retired.
Beulah Mae Donald won a civil suit against the United Klans of America in 1987. The $7 million award bankrupted the organization and she assumed ownership of their properties before passing away in 1988 at age 67. The remaining Donald siblings could not be reached for comment on this story.
Kirkland nodded to the Donald family’s civil recourse as the case’s largest effect. Its precedent still dominates hate group punishment.
In 2006, signs for Michael Donald Avenue replaced those for Herndon Avenue. His name hangs higher than his body ever did.