I’ve previously written that the study of history is a discipline aimed at discerning truth from myth. Sadly, CNN’s recent Mobile-related documentary series, “The People v. The Klan,” falls short of accomplishing this.
Built around the March 21, 1981 lynching of 19-year-old Michael Donald, it focuses on his mother’s admirable perseverance. Beulah Mae Donald’s subsequent lawsuit bankrupted the Tuscaloosa-based United Klans of America and shaped future recourse against hate groups.
The series started as a fine crime procedural, albeit with an incomplete historical backdrop. Civic leaders long cultivated a myth of Mobile as racially harmonious. Donald’s lynching harpooned that. The series never mentioned this seminal factor and its powerful role.
The show often leapt through time and place to draw sometimes tenuous connections to previous and future incidents. Comparison to Emmett Till’s murder was apt. The key difference was Mobile jurors convicted at least one of Donald’s killers — the other pled guilty, another died pre-trial — while Till’s murderers were acquitted.
What was best about the CNN documentary? The heartfelt testimony of those who knew the victim: his family, recordings of his now-deceased mother and one of his teachers.
Researchers did a painstaking job gathering newspaper clips, photographs and video footage. They mined resources at all levels, local to national.
Yet creative liberties appeared 20 minutes into the first episode. Executive Producer Cornell William Brooks brought up “assumption of Black criminality” and “postmortem character assassination,” then correlated recent police killings to Donald’s.
Producers quickly latched onto the Donald case’s lead detective, Wilbur Williams, as one of eight policemen accused of a 1976 mock lynching on robbery suspect Glenn Diamond. Williams was cleared of that crime. Evidence verified his location elsewhere. Even Diamond told cameras Williams “wasn’t one of the main ones.”
Weeks after the abuse case, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) members and Klan members separately visited Mobile Mayor/Public Safety Commissioner Robert Doyle in City Hall on the same day. Newspaper photos were snapped.
When, in the documentary, Williams denied Klan members ever went “to the station” to meet with police, producers flashed a photo of the Klan members in City Hall. Doyle’s NAACP meeting wasn’t mentioned.
I know the bare reality was made available to producers. Ironic how showrunners decried character assassination, then something similar emerged from their work.
The series skipped the well-known chaos caused by the Mobile Police Department’s poor organization. They avoided law enforcement’s early suspicion of Klan members who lived across from the crime scene and frustration at the lack of supporting evidence.
A hefty reward — $12,000 at one point — meant crazy “leads” sprouted like weeds. Each demanded research to eliminate its use in sowing doubt among jurors once the killers were on trial. That meant detectives visited the Donald family repeatedly and asked about new drug-related stories. When a family is grieving, the effect is easy to envision.
When the media heard about illicit possibilities, they printed them. It sold papers. It’s no overarching conspiracy.
Williams, Detective Vince Richardson and Police Chief Sam McClarty were all quoted in the day attesting to Donald’s spotless reputation. It challenged the “character assassination” angle, yet wasn’t included in the documentary. If law enforcement wanted to smear Donald and let his murder disappear, why would then-District Attorney Chris Galanos form a special task force after a couple of months and meticulously begin anew?
Mobile was in the middle of an unprecedented three-year homicide wave. Task force detectives were needed elsewhere — Williams was still working the notorious Col. Dixie/Elizabeth Leverett murder at the time — so their reassignment reflected a concerted effort.
Williams and Galanos likely told producers all this because they did to authors Laurence Leamer (“The Lynching”), B.J. Hollars (“Thirteen Loops”) and me. The involvement of those authors or any number of Mobile historians could have corrected these errors.
Editing conflated 1970s Klan marches with the fallout from the Donald lynching. Possibly unintentional, maybe minor, but still errant.
In most other ways, the series hits the mark. It was intriguing watching federal personnel take credit for cracking the case moments after Galanos told how the key witness first confessed to Mobile police. The portions on the civil trial are well done. The fourth installment hits a poignant high mark with the words exchanged between Beulah Mae Donald and a murderer.
Then it returns to the polemic against law enforcement. By the end, it seemed less an attempt to honestly explore this atrocity and its resolution than to provide soapboxes for selected opinions.
If you want to know about this benchmark crime, read Leamer’s or Hollars’ work. Maybe look up Michael Wilson’s superb 1997 Press-Register series of articles.
Just don’t turn to this CNN series as a complete picture. That’s a myth you would tell yourself.
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