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Last week, a small east Texas town comes to a moment of truth and close evaluation, whether it wants to or not or whether it deserves such nationwide scrutiny or not.
Nevertheless, activities that took place last week in Jasper, Texas and the southeast Texas region will call to the spotlight what happened 10 years ago and bring back to the forefront horrid memories of the gruesome murder of James Byrd Jr., in one of the most shocking racial hate crimes in several decades.
It’s a crime that has been put on the same level as the deaths of Emmitt Till in Money, Miss. in 1955; the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman killed in Philadelphia, Miss. in 1964; and the famous four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair who were killed inside the bombed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham one Sunday morning in 1963.
Byrd’s death took place well after the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, when these other murders took place. Yet, it gripped the nation just the same and revealed a bad taste of a racism that still existed two years from the turn of the 21st century.
“A lot of people are still scarred by what happened,” said Louvon Byrd Harris, one of James Byrd’s sisters and co-founder of the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing. “And there are some who would like to literally forget what happened. Through the years, we have basically kept it out to the public.”
Harris said observing the 10th anniversary will determine how much the town of 8,000, located 110 miles northeast of Houston, may have healed, or progressed in terms of improving their racial climate.
“Sometimes we get lots of support, sometimes we don’t,” Harris said. “People want to just go on with their lives. As a family, we just cannot do that.”
Former Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles admitted to some underlying racial issues in Jasper 10 years ago, but never felt that the crime was totally reflective of the city or county’s racial climate.
“The race relations in Jasper have improved. I really didn’t think they were real bad before, until you start analyzing things,” said Rowles, now a practicing attorney. “I know a lot of the people here in the Jasper community took a second look at things when this event happened and made the adjustments necessary accordingly.”
That included himself.
“I didn’t think I had any problems with race whatsoever until this happened and, lo and behold, I was probably no different than a lot of people. I had to make a few adjustments. I did and a lot of the people here have.”
That fateful night, June 7, 1998, forever changed the history for Jasper. Byrd, 49, was walking home from a niece’s bridal shower when he accepted a ride from Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King (whom Byrd already knew.) Instead of taking him home, the trio beat Byrd behind a store then tied one end of a chain around his waist, the other end to their pickup truck.
Byrd was stripped naked and dragged for approximately three miles. When his body hit a sewage drain on the side of a road, it decapitated him. Eventually, more body parts would be dismembered from the dragging. King, Berry and Brewer took the remains of Byrd’s mutilated body and left it in the town’s Black cemetery.
The three men went on to attend a barbeque. They were later arrested.
By the morning, over 75 pieces of Byrd’s remains were found by police. With King and Berry being well known as White supremacists, the murder was ruled a hate crime.
Harris, living in Houston, got the word that her brother was killed in an “accident.” Upon arriving in Jasper, she found out the horrid details of just how Byrd was murdered.
“To hear that, I became numb and said you’ve got to be kidding me,” Harris recalled. “Something like this had not been done to a human being in this decade.”
It could have gotten even worst. The news about the murder - a Black man being dragged to death and dismembered by three White men - was getting out to the public, but filled at times with rampant rumors and false information, according to Rowles. With the town being 48 percent White and 44 percent Black, it was the kind of information that could have polarized and angered both groups to the point of sparking a full-scale race riot.
“All they had to do was call for revenge - and there were people waiting for them to do that,” said Cherry Steinwender, founder of the Center for Healing Racism. “This county could have been totally burned down.”
Harris is all too aware of that fact. “If we had said the wrong thing at that time, it would have been a race war,” Harris said. “Then it would have been families losing sons and daughters. We had to reach down deep within us to not seek restitution.”
I think that could have very well happened,” said Rowles, describing that emotions were very sensitive on all fronts. “We knew pretty quick that this was going to be a racially motivated crime. Even if a matter wasn’t racially related, things could have still been blown out of proportion.”
Rowles acted quickly to defuse the time bomb. He called a meeting of Jasper’s ministerial alliance, made up of both Black and White ministers. And the type of privileged detailed information usually withheld during a homicide investigation was given to the ministers to keep them fully informed.
“We did this early, stomping rumors and just trying to head off any potential problems that may arise,” Rowles said. “The ministers in this community kept their churches pretty much on top of things. It turns out that by doing this, our preachers had a large hand in maintaining peace and harmony in this community.
“The Good Lord took over and kept our community calm.”
But Rowles is not the only one responsible for defusing the volatile situation. “How they are treating this whole incident around their family member was to me the greatest act of courage ever,” said Steinwender, whose organization gave the Byrd family an award a year after. “We wanted the nation to know that the way they handled it kept the lid on stuff. Things could have erupted like the 1992 Los Angeles race riots.”
Three separate trials for King, Berry and Brewer were held in 1999. King and Brewer were sentenced to death. Berry was given life in prison.
But the murder continued to test the racial barometer, not only of Jasper, but also of the entire state.
President George W. Bush was the Governor of Texas at that time. Even as the news had spread nationwide, he declined to appear at Byrd’s funeral or any subsequent rallies in his memory, a snub that angered Jasper’s African American and Hispanic citizens. When the outcry came to strengthen the state’s weak hate crime law, he opposed it, once stating, “We don’t need tougher laws.”
As Rick Perry finished Bush’s term, state legislators returned to get the bill passed, now renamed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. Sponsored by State Senator Rodney Ellis and lobbied aggressively by fellow State Senator Royce West and others, the bill passed May 2001, with several members of the Byrd family present at the State Capitol, including Stella, Byrd’s mother.
Commemorating the anniversary, The Center for Healing Racism held an event, titled “Nooses, A History of Lynching, From Trees to Trucks,” in honor of Byrd’s memory.
Also, the Anti-Defamation League of Houston held a special press conference featuring Byrd’s sister Mylinda Washington, who spoke the next day at the league’s national executive meeting in Bastrop.
On June 7, the exact anniversary date, the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing sponsored the program titled, “Make a Difference,” at 10 a.m. at the James Byrd Memorial Park in Jasper. All the programs are intended to both honor Byrd’s memory and to encourage dialogue on race relations.
“As a country, we have a long way to go. We’re not moving fast enough,” said Lani Silver, Director of the Racism Oral History Project, who will participate in several of the events.
“It’s kind of an anguish that we live in a country where this can happen. Everyone is not doing their share. We all need to remember James Byrd Jr. These events will allow the community to come together and reflect on what happened and to prevent other hate crimes.”
Today, Jasper attempts to find redemption of some sort.
“We’ve got a big ‘ol knot over our head,” said Rowles. “Before this incident took place, Jasper, Texas was a great place to raise your family and to live - I think it still is. We just need a little economic boost. Even if we don’t get that, it still is a great place to live. We got a bad name out of this even though we handled it as well as it could have been handled. We’ve still got a big scar across our face.”
Ironically, at the time of Byrd’s murder, Jasper’s mayor, hospital administrator, Council of Government executive director, chamber of commerce president, past president of the school board and two city councilman were all Black. Later, the town was hit hard on September 25, 2005 by Hurricane Rita, which left the town without power or water for three and a half weeks.
Economically strapped, Rowles and the city and county’s economic development department looks for a major company to move in to create some new jobs. “Our city will heal, it’s just a matter of time.”
Louvon Harris feels that racial issues still exist. “I think people still don’t get it. If your heart doesn’t change, then you don’t change.We don’t want to be just tolerated; we want to be respected.”
She vows that the family will continue to be visible in her brother’s name. “He cannot speak for himself. It’s up to us to keep it out there.”