“If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.” - The Bhagavad-Gita
It was an amazing act of forgiveness, an expression of human greatness in the realm of the heart. It occurred in a courtroom in Mobile Alabama. When I read the story I wept, and set out to write a song from the inspiration I felt. Here is the story, and a link to the song it inspired—offered freely as a tribute to this unassuming mother and the beauty of forgiveness.
When I read the story I wept. I felt I was in the presence of greatness, a quiet greatness of the heart. It occurred in 1981 in a courtroom in Mobile Alabama. Two men were on trail for murder. A few years earlier a teenage boy named Michael Donald had been walking home from the convenience store when he was brutally beaten and then lynched. The men on trial were members of the Klu Klux Klan. Michael Donald was black. In their eyes that was his crime.
Also in the courtroom that day was Beulah Mae Donald, the boy’s mother.
During the trial, one of the men, named Tiger Knowles, admitted his guilt. He turned to Beulah Mae and said he was sorry. There was a moment of stillness. No one knew what to say or what might come next. It was as if everyone in the room held their collective breath. Then Beulah Mae looked at him and said softly, “I forgive you.”
I have two sons. I have tried to imagine how she must have felt seeing the men who had murdered her child. What must have been in her heart? Where could such charity come from insider her?
I have struggled with my own inability and unwillingness to forgive, and certainly over matters much less searing than this.
At the time of first reading about Beulah Mae I was resentful of a friend who I felt had cheated me out of $160. During those days, my mind was the courtroom, and I observed the satisfaction I gained building the case against my friend. I felt the power of my desire for justice. There was no way I would let her get “off the hook.” I did not seem to know or care about the effect on me of carrying this grudge. But there was a hidden cost to this litigation taking place inside me. I’d walk in the sunset, hardly aware of the sights and sounds around me, lost in thoughts of how I’d been wronged. At times I’d tell myself that the whole matter had passed, that it was no big deal, while a subterranean residue of bitterness continued to poison the well of my heart.
How many other grudges remain alive in me? How long is the docket of cases of having been wronged in life? What does it do to the quality of life when unresolved grievances fester inside, whether consciously or not? The impulse for revenge need not be overtly violent. Gossiping about her to enlist others to think poorly of her, or withdrawing from her are symptoms of a silent hardening of the heart, a toxic element active in me. These are ways that I, as the Sufi poet Rumi says, “spread my bad seed everywhere.”
When I read about this woman in an Alabama courtroom a shining possibility captured my heart. I felt my love for my own children, so intense that it’s painful. Could my heart find what Beulah Mae found in her hers?
Could I too feel the sheer grief of loss without the reflex to retaliate?
I’m a singer songwriter. The story of Tiger Knowles’ repentance and Beulah Mae’s forgiveness inspired a song. It’s called Black Madonna.
With this link you can listen to it and/or download it
The song is a gift. It is a tribute to this achievement of the human heart.
Winning an Olympic gold medal, inventing the computer chip, creating the David statue out of marble. When we think of awesome human achievement what kinds of things comes to mind? What about the achievement of forgiving, so beautiful, so noble? Is not the action of Beulah Mae a kind of greatness?