Is It Progress For Alabama To Execute A White Man?

Posted: June 09, 1997

A lot is being made of the execution last week of 42-year-old Henry Francis Hays, a former Alabama Klansman. The media have pointed out that Hays is the first white to be executed for the murder of a black in the state of Alabama since 1913.

What a sad barometer on race relations in the South. Hays was convicted in the death of Michael Donald, 19, on the night of March 20, 1981. According to court records, he and a fellow Ku Klux Klan member, James ``Tiger'' Knowles, cruised a poor neighborhood in Mobile looking for some black, any black, to kill. They saw the cowardly murder as proof of the Klan's power.

According to Knowles' testimony, he and Hays forced Donald into their car at gunpoint. They beat him with tree branches, put a noose around his neck, and choked him.

Knowles, who testified at Hays' murder trial, received a life sentence for violating Donald's civil rights. He told the court that Hays slashed the teenager's throat three times to make sure he was dead and hung his body high in a tree.

Upon hearing of Hays' electrocution by the state of Alabama, some throughout the country nodded approvingly - as if the execution signaled some sort of racial progress or parity in Alabama.

Hardly. What Alabama and the rest of the world need at this hour in history is less death, not more. Even this heinous crime does not move me to support the death penalty, which I consider to be barbaric, cruel and ineffective in stemming the tide of murder in America.

However, the reason for the wide interest in Hays' electrocution is clear.

Throughout Alabama history, many blacks have gone to their final resting place for the murder or rape of whites or, occasionally, for just being ``too uppity.''

I'm no expert on Alabama, but as far as I know, no white has ever been accused of being ``too uppity.'' Until Hays, very few whites have lost their lives for the murder or rape of an African American.

Several African Americans, in the North as well as the South, salivated at the news that the execution had been carried out. Many were convinced, right up to the moment that Hays was strapped into the electric chair, that there would be a last-minute reprieve by Alabama Gov. Fob James.

``I was surprised by Hays' execution because it's as simple as this,'' Wallace Williams, a trucking yard operator outside of Mobile, told me by telephone. ``Whites simply are not executed in Alabama for killing blacks. Everybody knows that.''

However, appeals for clemency by Hays' brother and sister were unsuccessful. They blamed their late father, Bennie Jack Hays, who once led the United Klans in southern Alabama, for the crime.

The elder Hays had been charged with inciting Donald's murder, but a mistrial was declared after he collapsed during the proceedings. He died before being retried.

Some think Hays' death was largely the result of the changing politics of the South.

A black Mobile resident, Bertha Mae Cooper, expressed the meaning she took from the execution this way: ``I think it's an indication that equality of the races has finally arrived in Alabama. Maybe things are not completely equal, but they sure are a lot better.''

Considering the long and cruel mistreatment of blacks in Alabama and other states, it seems premature to conclude from this one execution that blacks and whites are now equal in the South.

While it may be true that blacks and whites may more often be judged on the facts of their cases, without consideration of skin color, I'd be careful making assumptions about Alabama.

A call to the NAACP in Mobile put me in touch with the NAACP's answering machine - and reality. Its recorded message?

``Due to our workload, if you have a complaint, please put it in writing and request an appointment. Thank you kindly.''

Not much to rejoice in there.

Much of the reaction to the Hays execution reminds me of something Gandhi once said: ``An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.''

Claude Lewis' column appears on Mondays and Wednesdays.

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