1979 Birmingham murder leads to lynching and end of Alabama KKK

Jay Glass
Jay Glass

Today’s guest columnist is Jay Glass.

When you read about lynchings and the KKK in Alabama, you expect to be reading about incidents that happened 100 years ago. But this chain of events happened between 1979 and 1987–just 34 years ago.

Certain acts can have important unintended consequences.

An example of such a profound delayed effect with far-reaching social ramifications would have its origin in downtown Birmingham on the afternoon of November 29th, 1979 in front of Newberry’s in the 200 block of 20th Street North.

The Christmas shopping rush was on when a call went out over the police radio reporting an armed robbery at a savings and loan branch and which included a description of a Black male suspect.  Sitting in his patrol car, Sgt. Albert Eugene Ballard, 46, and two days before being eligible to retire, saw a man walking on the sidewalk who fit the general description of the suspect.  This man was later identified as Josephus Anderson, an individual with a long history of violent criminal activity.

Upon calling him over to his car, Anderson leaned into the vehicle and shot Ballard several times and then ran away.  Police officers chased Anderson into an alley at Third Avenue and 13th Street North where a gun battle ensued and Anderson was shot multiple times and captured.

The prosecution of Josephus Anderson for the murder of Officer Ballard would then commence a long 5 1/2 year process which would include four trials, the first three of which would end in hung juries.  This was likely related to the lack of positive eyewitness identification of Anderson as the person who shot Ballard and questions regarding ballistic evidence.

During each trial Anderson would be prosecuted and defended by two tenacious attorneys, David Barber, later to become the District Attorney of Jefferson County and by William Clark, who was likely responsible for Anderson not receiving the death penalty.  Following his conviction in 1985, the jury recommended a sentence of life without parole.

So what were the “unforeseen consequences” of this story and how did they come about?

In 1981, shortly after the jury in the first trial of Anderson could not reach a verdict, several members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mobile reacted to this outcome by abducting a 19 year old Black man named Michael Donald.  Donald was beaten to death and his body hanged in a tree.

Although several Klan members were later convicted of this crime, with one of them being executed for the murder, that would not be the end of this matter.

In 1987, Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the United Klans of America.  During that trial, a Klan member testified that the motive for the murder of Donald was that “The Klan wanted the message to get back to the black people of not just Alabama, but the whole United States, that we would not stand for a black person killing a white police officer and getting away with it.”  Mrs. Donald won a $7 million judgement against the United Klans of America which bankrupted the organization, effectively leading to the cessation of Ku Klux Klan operations in Alabama.

In retrospect, these unforeseen consequences can be indirectly traced back to that incident years before when Josephus Anderson survived being shot multiple times by police officers in a Birmingham alley and which, in the end, would set a precedent for successful civil rights lawsuits against other racist hate groups.

Josephus Anderson, age 79, would die from natural causes in March, 2021, while serving his life sentence in Holman prison.

Jay Glass retired as Chief Deputy Coroner following 35 years of service with the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner Office.  He is the author of the recently published book “Life and Death in the Magic City.  A Coroner’s Perspective of Jefferson County, Alabama in the Early 20th Century.”  The book provides a review of Jefferson County during the turbulent first half of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of the coroners, law enforcement officials and news media during that time along with statistical comparisons to our current community.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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12 thoughts on “1979 Birmingham murder leads to lynching and end of Alabama KKK”

  1. Thanks for the continued horrible and discussing HISTORY of Alabama and Birmingham. Guilt should be directed to the criminals of the crimes, not a rehash of HISTORY that most of us know.
    Do you know that the majority of our younger citizens want to move forward and desire to look toward a future of prosperity for all? That is, the young population that remains here. Many have left due to job availability and desire for betterment for themselves and their family.

    Reference the last census report for Birmingham vs. Huntsville and even Mobile and Montgomery showing growth trends, international business and manufacturing.

    Maybe it’s time to have this type of format used for promotion for the development of this city instead of the dark history of this nation and our part of it. And. BTW, multiple cities have a similar history, but they are looking forward to developing a better world for their citizens.

    1. Our entire world has a dark history, and America is no exception. However, starting with the Declaration of Independence, SOME Americans began to change that. Anyone who is still teaching young impressionable children to hate based solely on skin color is part of the problem. Dr. King hoped we would use different criteria to judge other INDIVIDUALS.

      1. Durham, you are absolutely right! I agree.
        And we have overcome much already, with a only little yet to go. The younger generation should be encouraged to move ahead of this as they desire.

    2. I agree with you. I say do not hide it, but why do we need to blast our bad history. I can think of now one that helps, ancept those who want to stir up the flames. The history we now want is the history of how we got past this horror. Also I am not young but I agree with the young ones who are thinking that way.

      1. I totally agree! And I wonder why Sher continues to shed light on the negativity. Maybe he should be a history professor at Univ. of Berkley.

        More so, why would anyone ask Sher to speak in a private or public forum with this focus on negativity ?Or does he chande his stance based on the audience ?


        1. William, I very much appreciate you following ComebackTown and for your feedback. The objective of ComebackTown is to create conversations that encourage people to talk about the good and bad of our region to make our future better. ComebackTown has published close to 500 columns over an almost 10 year period with a lot of guest columnists. Obviously some guest columnist would like to educate about our past so we can learn from our mistakes. These columns certainly prove that Birmingham and Alabama are much better now. There are a number of Birminghamians that would like to use our history as a brand to promote how Birmingham has impacted the world. I’m sure you read Richard Dickerson’s piece a few weeks back promoting that effort. https://comebacktown.com/2021/08/31/how-birmingham-is-totally-unique/. Obviously you care a lot about Birmingham–as do I. I think it’s important we keep talking. I welcome your comments.

    3. Great read. I was born/raised in Birmingham. I lived this history…I remember seeing KKK members one time during those years. While the direction of their energy may have been unpleasant, it is a fact that is a part of our past, as well as our education about where we lived and what was going on. As a high school student at Banks HS during those years and a Freshman, I vividly remember how terrified we were when we were directed to got down in the floor, under shelter of our desks, as a large, angry crowd of African Americans approached in an effort to demonstrate against segregation, and yes, we were terrified. But it is HISTORY, an important part of how things DID eventually change. We cannot erase those portions of our past that , at the time May have seemed very strange and threatening. Yet today, things have changed, and change needed to come at that time. I am proud to have been a part of that history, for good and for bad. That’s just the evolution of life. We can’t rewrite OR I write that history.

  2. I understand the desire to turn away from the darkness of history, but to do that is to deny truth in terms of what we are capable of (both the good and the ugly). It is important for the next generations to know, so they can choose different paths, otherwise the negative forces of humankind (superiority of one’s own group, setting profit and power as the ultimate goal and test of success, etc.) will raise their ugly head in future generations, perhaps in different ways, over and over. History itself is proof of this. Our current day is proof of it. We have to look both (past and present) in the eye and acknowledge them, but more importantly, understand what they say about who we are as a species, so we can aim higher and “go forward.”

  3. PS Jay, congratulations on your book! Look forward to reading it. I well remember when Gene Ballard was shot and having to take a turn guarding Anderson at the hospital. He was one scary dude. Wasn’t the trial moved to Mobile at some point? That put it right in the Mobile KKK’s faces when mistrial(s) occurred.

  4. Thanks T.K.! Yes, the trials were moved to Mobile.
    Josephus was a real bad actor. What wasn’t brought out in the article was the fact that the gun recovered from him was taken from a bank guard in Atlanta that he killed during a robbery.

  5. This comment is on the side story of Mobile annexation. Black people should support this annexation as well as any annexation done by mostly Black central cities.

  6. I grew. In Childersburg, AL, my mothers. Husband was kkk, he and 20 other klansmans.did to much evil.acts ..he ended up killimg my mother and has spent 31 years on death row @holman .. I knew he in that mess but. I didnt know everything. Until i researched. It .. And yes him and his klansmans were brought up in Beluhas case ..she broke the klan but they changed the names and. Built it back .. 😪😪😪🙏🙏🙏🙏

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