When Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) returned home from a trip to the Middle East in October, he offered a reflection on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to the Bangor Daily News:
“My characterization of ISIS is that they have 14th century ethics and 21st century weapons,” he said.
King and others who have reached into the Middle Ages for an apt Islamic State comparison may be going back further than they need to. The 19th and 20th centuries work just as well.
For David Pilgrim, the founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, the actions of ISIS and other extremist groups are familiar — no better, no worse than the historic stateside violence against African-Americans.
“There’s nothing you’re going to see today that’s not going to have already occurred in the U.S.,” he said. “If you think of these groups that behead now — first of all, beheading is barbaric but it’s no more or less barbaric than some of the lynchings that occurred in the U.S.”
The Ku Klux Klan was a domestic terror organization from its beginning, said Pilgrim, who finds it offensive when, after 9/11, some Americans would bemoan that terrorism had finally breached U.S. borders.
“That is ignoring and trivializing — if not just summarily dismissing — all the people, especially the peoples of color in this country, who were lynched in this country; who had their homes bombed in this country; who were victims of race riots,” he said.
Victims of lynching were often burned, castrated, shot, stabbed and, in some cases, beheaded. Bodies were then hung or dragged through towns for display.
Most of these atrocities occurred during the eras of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow — but not all.
It was 116 years after slavery and 40 years after Jim Crow when 19-year-old Michael Donald’s body was found swinging gently from a Mobile, Alabama, camphor tree in 1981. A perfect hangman’s knot containing 13 loops held the noose wrapped around his neck, and a squad of Klansmen stood on a porch across the street, looking on as the police gathered evidence.
Lynchings like Donald’s exemplify the terrorist methods that have always been the “stock and trade” of the KKK, according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Michael Donald was sort of a classic case,” he said. “It was real terrorism in the sense that Michael Donald was a completely random victim. He was completely unknown to his Klan murderers. He was simply abducted off the street and murdered in order to frighten black people.”
Donald’s lynching is often referred to as “America’s last.” His death falls outside the terror lynchings that ran rampant during the Jim Crow era, according to a report released by Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative earlier this month.
The study found almost 3,960 African-Americans were lynched from 1877 to 1950 — a number that supersedes previous estimates by at least 700. It looked at lynchings in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
An “Instant Nigger” is 50 percent tar, 45 percent ignorance and 5 percent water, according to a flier thrown on the campus of Murphy High School in Mobile by Klansmen in the early 1970s.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Ada Fields, a black Mobile resident who attended the school. “It was a paper with a jar and a black body — totally black — with big bug eyes looking out the jar.”
Alabama has a peculiar history with racially motivated terrorism — arguably more so than other states in the Deep South — and the state’s Klan history complicates things a bit more. Since each cell of the Ku Klux Klan has a different history, Potok said, it is difficult to discuss the Klan as a single, monolithic group.
There were four eras of the Klan — and the first and third eras were, arguably, the most characteristic of a terrorist organization.
Initial incarnations of the Klan used intimidation and violence to oppose the extension of civil liberties to blacks, maintain authority over black laborers and enforce their beliefs of white supremacy during Reconstruction, the years after the Civil War when the North occupied the South and briefly attempted to introduce more equitable practices.
Third-era Klan groups arose in response to the Brown v. Board of Education verdict, with membership peaking at about 40,000 around 1965. These individual Klans were more autonomous and often used the same terrorist methods as the first incarnation in an attempt to impede the civil rights movement.
Henry Hays and James Knowles, Donald’s murderers, belonged to the United Klans of America, a third-era KKK organization based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that, at its height, was considered the strongest and most violent in the nation.
“The United Klans of America absolutely gloried in violence. That was their main, and perhaps their only, political tool,” Potok said. “Violence and terrorism was a way of life for the United Klans of America. The group thought that these tactics would make it possible to reinstitute white supremacy.”
Not only was the UKA linked to Donald’s killing, members were also held responsible for the Mother’s Day attack on Freedom Riders and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing — an attack resulting in the deaths of four young black girls. Both attacks occurred around Birmingham, Alabama, in 1961 and 1963, respectively.
“It’s like they were born to have a genocide or something — a black genocide,” Fields said of the Klan. “They hated blacks. They was gonna get ‘em anyway. You couldn’t walk the street. If they could get you, they would hurt you.”
However, Donald’s lynching wasn’t part of a widespread attempt to make a statement against a large civil rights movement — it was revenge for a particular incident. He was, as Potok said, a random sacrifice — the KKK’s retribution for the death of a local white police officer whose alleged killer, an African-American, had walked free.
It was thought that the African-Americans who sat on the jury in the cop-killing case had altered the verdict, and at a post-trial meeting, Bennie Hays, the “Titan” of the UKA, reportedly said, “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.”
A Klan leader calling for the death of a black person was a retro concept in 1981 — one more aligned with the group’s ideology during the civil rights movement.
“If you go back to the ’60s, the Klan often planned murders and bombings and so on — literally in rooms full of men,” Potok said of the outdated practice. “Now, it was true in the Michael Donald case in the sense that the leader, Hays, essentially organized the killing.”
Hays, the leader’s son, and Knowles took the Titan’s message to heart. On March 21, 1981, they hopped into their car and drove around Mobile with plans to avenge the death of the white police officer.
Eventually, Hays and Knowles spotted Donald as he walked home from buying a pack of cigarettes. After asking him for directions, Hays and Knowles forced Donald into their car at gunpoint and drove to a neighboring county.
According to The New York Times, Donald begged for his life and tried to escape. But the pair chased him down and, when they caught him, hit him with a tree limb more than 100 times. Once his body was still, a noose was slipped over his head, and Hays shoved his boot into Donald’s face. The rope was pulled and Donald’s throat was slit.
His body was left hanging to be discovered the next morning in a black area of Mobile, according to Fields.
“It really touched home when they come and hanged a dead body — a black, young man’s dead body — in a black area. It just really bothered us because they hung him right in our neighborhood,” Fields said. “It took a lot out of us.”
In 1983, Knowles and Hays were convicted of murder and of violating Donald’s civil rights.
Hays received the death penalty and was executed on June 6, 1997.
On June 7, 1998, three white men kidnapped African-American James Byrd, chained him to the back of a pickup truck by his ankles and dragged him almost 4 miles down a road near Jasper, Texas. Byrd died via decapitation after hitting a culvert, though the autopsy report said he was likely conscious for the majority of the ordeal.
Prosecutors, according to CNN, said the attack was “one of the most vicious hate crimes in U.S. history” and was intended to advertise a new white supremacist organization. In 2009, President Barack Obama expanded hate crime legislation due to the deaths of Byrd and Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was kidnapped and beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998.
Pilgrim of the Jim Crow Museum, however, said Byrd’s death was more than a hate crime — it was a lynching.
A lynching, per Pilgrim, involves an extrajudicial killing where the death is used to make a statement against a certain group or individual. Essentially, the killing has a purpose that transcends the actual death of the victim regardless of whether it was executed publicly — a common misconception as to what defines a lynching.
Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said such crimes are often used as a warning.
“It’s not just that you’re killing this person, for one reason or another. It’s that you’re warning all the rest,” Potok said. “It was message crime. It was supposed to send a message to black people in Alabama, and elsewhere, that if you do things like set black cop killers free, we will kill you.”
While current terror organizations abroad are fighting to upset the existing conditions of their societies, the Klan aimed to maintain the status quo being threatened by a rapidly growing social movement.
The goal of first- and third-era Klan groups was to return to a time when “men were men, women were women, and black people knew their place,” according to Potok.
“The radical right, in general in the United States, was — until the end of the civil rights movement — essentially restorationist,” he said. “The Klan, and most other groups of those years … wanted to turn back the clock.”
Knowles testified in 1984 during a civil rights lawsuit filed against the Klan by Beulah Mae Donald, Michael Donald’s mother, that one of the purposes of the killing was to “show Klan strength in Alabama.”
Mobile’s black community got the message loud and clear.
“They come out and let us know they in full bloom … How do you think that made us feel? It was like they can do anything they wanna do,” she said. “They sent a message to us saying, ‘Y’all think that it’s gone away. [That] we’ve left — we still here.’ Cause we didn’t think they’d do something like that.”