Movie Reviews

‘The People v. The Klan’: How to watch and what to read next

It would be the last time Donald’s family saw him alive. The next morning, the 19-year-old’s body was found viciously beaten, hanging from a tree on a residential street in Mobile.

Police began to investigate, questioning who could have committed such a horrendous crime — but those in the local Black community suspected they already knew the answer.

Between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 Black Americans were lynched in the United States, according to the NAACP. Those are just the lynchings that have been documented, the civil rights organization notes, with countless more unrecorded.
And by 1980, the Ku Klux Klan had for more than a century used violence — whether with a gun, a noose or a bomb — to instill fear and terrorize Black communities in the name of White supremacy. On that March morning, the sight of Donald at the end of a rope immediately raised suspicions about Klan involvement.
It would take years before those suspicions were proven true. The Donald family’s unwavering fight for justice — including Michael Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, taking the entire United Klans of America to court to hold them accountable for the death of her son — is chronicled in the four-part CNN Original Series, “The People v. The Klan.”

When to watch

The first two episodes of “The People v. The Klan” premiere on Sunday, April 11, starting at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The final two episodes will premiere on Sunday, April 18, starting at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Each episode will stream live for subscribers via CNNgo, and will be available on demand the day following its premiere.

What to expect

The series, produced by Blumhouse Television, uses a mix of archival footage and present-day interviews to revisit the Donald cases in light of the ongoing fight for racial justice.

Where to learn more

The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School has an educational guide that offers historical context on the issues at the center of the series. Co-developed by Cornell William Brooks, the Collaborative’s faculty director and an executive producer of “The People v. The Klan,” the guide includes several resources where you can learn more about the history of lynching in America; the civil cases of Beulah Mae Donald v. the United Klans of America; the criminal case on behalf of Michael Donald; and the events in “The People v. the Klan.”
Below are four of the guide’s books to start with; you can view the full resource here.

“The Light of Truth: Writings of An Anti-Lynching Crusader,” by Ida B. Wells

Early 20th century journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells is one of history’s most outspoken voices on the horrors of lynching and racialized terror. This collection chronicles her powerful writings at all stages of her pioneering career.

“At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America,” by Philip Dray

For those looking for a comprehensive history of lynching in the US, civil rights historian Philip Dray’s account is one place to start. His work aims to “shine a clear, bright light on American history’s darkest stain, illuminating its causes, perpetrators, apologists and victims” as well as the stories of those who battled to eradicate it.

“Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America,” by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson

In “The People v. The Klan,” contributors point to the clear connection between the work of mothers like Mamie Till-Mobley and Beulah Mae Donald and the resounding cry of the Black Lives Matter movement today. In 1955, Till-Mobley’s 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, was murdered by two White men who accused the teen of whistling at a White woman. The killing was so vicious Till-Mobley kept the casket open at her child’s funeral so that “all the world” could see what had been done — a decision that helped spur on the civil rights movement. In this memoir, she gives more insight into the life and loss of her only child. It was published shortly after her death in 2003.

“The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan,” by Laurence Leamer

This book offers a detailed account of both the criminal and civil cases that followed the murder of Michael Donald and provides insight into the evolving history of the Klan. “Leamer’s story underscores just how intense racial tensions were in the 1980s,” Daryl Michael Scott, a history professor at Howard University, wrote in a review for the Washington Post. “At the time of the Donald killing, many Americans tended to believe that White supremacy had been dismantled, but in fact White supremacists were still prevalent.”
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