How a Detective Who Was Blamed for One Lynching Solved AnotherHistorians in the News
tags: Alabama, lynching
Forty years seems like a long time but if Michael Donald hadn’t been lynched on March 21, 1981, he wouldn’t even be 60 years old yet. If the teenager’s body had not been hung in the predawn darkness on a residential street in Mobile, Alabama, he might be holding grandkids or serving as a church deacon now.
His case became a crucible for a town in denial about its capacity for brutality, for shortcomings in law enforcement and governance, and for a detective who shed undeserved tarnish for an earlier near-lynching through his pivotal role in finally solving Donald’s murder.
Start with the undeserved tarnish. As tensions percolated in Mobile in the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan was “sufficiently accepted that the Mobile Register listed its rallies the way the paper did high school football games,” as Laurence Leamer wrote in The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan.
A 1975 Klan rally in a Mobile suburb drew a reported 1,000-plus attendees. A subsequent march resulted in skirmishes with counter-protesters.
In late March of 1976, 27-year-old Glenn Diamond and a friend were seized by Mobile police for “suspicious activity” outside a darkened McDonald’s. A robbery confession was wanted. Rope was grabbed from an officer’s car as the handcuffed man was pulled toward a tree.
“He’s lying and we ought to hang him,” one officer threatened, according to trial testimony.
Diamond said he was pulled upward, heels off the ground, the noose untightened but bearing his weight. He choked and nearly passed out before it stopped.
Eight officers were eventually suspended. One steadfastly stood apart from the others.
“I wasn’t there,” Wilbur Williams maintained. The three-year veteran, just 27 years old, had helped colleagues pull Diamond from a hiding spot after the suspect initially fled. Then Williams answered his radio.
“Two drunks at the Greyhound bus station got in a fight and one stomped the index finger off the other one,” Williams said in recollection.
Once at the station, the policeman grabbed the mangled finger and wrapped the maimed hand in a towel from the bus station café.
“I didn’t think there was any need for taxpayers to pay for an ambulance, so I loaded him into the blue-and-white and we got cookin’,” Williams said.
By the time Williams finished at the hospital and answered another call, the Diamond ordeal was long done.