The Michael Donald Papers

I spent the afternoon in the basement of one of the University of South Alabama’s Springhill Campus buildings where their archives are stored in a suite that used to be the X-ray lab, as the campus seems to be a former hospital. It’s surprisingly cheerful for a place that must be located near a former morgue. There’s a huge wooden conference table, a small collection of books dedicated to Mobile history, bookshelves of boxed files of photographs, and at least for the first half hour I was there, a family from Michigan with thick Fargo-like accents on a genealogical vacation who cheerfully took pictures of each other getting pictures they’d ordered of their recently tracked down, long dead relatives.

As luck would have it Scotty Kirkland who put the Michael Donald papers together when he was conducting research for his masters thesis—which he defended earlier this week—was working in the archives and was a great help in advising me which articles and judgments I could get through Lexis Nexus and which I should have photocopied. I think I got most everything I need from the files—court transcripts, coroner’s report, newspaper clippings, and leads on articles and interviews—but I’ll likely be back to follow up or do more research or see what photos they might have in their massive collection. In the meantime, just the transcripts and the coroner’s report (which I’ve just read) are just over 300 pages, and that’s a good bit to get started on.

For the newspaper articles and other miscellaneous items—including the charter for the Mobile klavern of the KKK—I took pictures with my digital camera, as I only had enough money to photocopy the court transcripts, so that’s another 184 pages, including more than a few that are the first pages of articles I need to order through the interlibrary loan or the library’s databases.

As I took the pictures and nervously thumbed through the files, certain names kept popping up, asking for more attention. I saw Shaw High School—the high school I graduated from— mentioned several times and think maybe Henry Hays and Tiger Knowles went there too. One article takes its title from Donald’s sister (I think): “Michael never came home.” There are articles from this decade about the retirements of the coroner who said he never saw a more horrid crime and the judge who presided over the case and Morris Dees, one of the founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who represented Beulah Mae Donald in her civil suit against the Klan. And there are pictures of Mrs. Donald, seated at a courtroom pew with her daughter and then older and dressed for church. There is an article about the Hays family titled “Raised in Hate,” with old family snapshots when Henry and his brother Raymond were little and photos of Raymond now and Benny Jack Hays, the father who raised them in hate, beating at a WALA cameraman with his cane outside the courthouse. There is the slender column of Michael Donald’s obituary.

This material is so much bigger than me, so much bigger than anything I’ve ever worked with, and it matters. It matters that in the Library of Congress online catalog only one book shows up under the subject heading of “Donald, Michael, 1961-1981”—a single book of fiction. There are masters theses at Auburn and now at the University of South Alabama, an information file at Michigan State University, court records in Lexus Nexus, a string of articles in the New York Times, a piece Ted Koppel did for the Discover Channel, but just one book and that of fiction. I should note that I’m hardly the only one interested in the Michael Donald papers. There are certainly other people who’ve requested them. And I’m sure too that I’m missing something, but this seems too damned big, too significant for there not to be more written about it in the eighteen years since that March morning. This has to be more than “news,” more than trials and judgments, more than a renamed street, more than a historical marker underneath a tree.

Here is what I can tell you about Michael Donald: The last thing he ate was an orange. All during his beating, strangulation, and hanging from a tree, the watch and chapstick in his jeans’ pocket never fell out. He wore black high top Converses and white jockey shorts. His organs were deep purple, “exquisitely congested” with blood. His heart weighed 350 grams.

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