Town still shadowed by dragging death
Jasper, Texas ? Ten years after James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death down a three-mile stretch of country road simply because he was black, some things have changed in Jasper.
Black and white teenagers can be seen playing basketball together at James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park. Blacks now make up a majority on the City Council. And an iron fence no longer separates the graves of whites and blacks in the 171-year-old cemetery where Byrd is buried.
But Byrd’s murder, which jolted the nation with its utter brutality and unvarnished racism, still casts a shadow over this timber town in deep East Texas. And many folks here think it always will.
“It is something we have to live with the rest of our lives,” said Walter Diggles, a black civic leader and executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. “It is similar to Dallas, when people think of the JFK assassination, or Memphis, when people think of Martin Luther King’s murder.”
Ever since three white men beat the 49-year-old Byrd, chained him by the ankles to the bumper of a Ford pickup truck, then pulled him down Huff Creek Road in the early hours of June 7, 1998, Jasper has been almost synonymous with the horrors of racism.
Byrd’s remains were found scattered in 75 places along the twisting path that cuts through a pine forest. His head and right arm were discovered about a mile from his mangled torso.
A decade later, according to Diggles, some people are still afraid to visit Jasper, a town of 8,000 where the main intersection is a cluster of fast-food places and restaurants offering chicken fried steak specials. Some businesses have been reluctant to come to town, which is badly in need of industry.
However, Diggles and many others say there is a hopeful part of the story too often overlooked: The murder forced the people of Jasper, a town whose population is almost evenly divided between black and white, to confront their prejudices.
“Afterward, people came together, worked together and healed together,” said R.C. Horn, who was mayor at the time and is black. “Some people were not even aware of what was going on inside themselves. But after it happened, everyone took a look at themselves to see what was inside.”
Byrd’s murderers were quickly arrested and convicted, offering some comfort that justice was served. John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer are now on death row. Shawn Allen Berry is serving a life sentence.
Clergy – both black and white – called on the people of Jasper to stay calm and stay home when the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan came to march. And the residents did. Many also saw the response of the Byrd family (“We are not hating; we are hurting,” James Byrd Sr. said after his son’s murder) as inspiring, ennobling.
“This was a mother who lost her son in the most cruel way, yet she showed and taught her family by her example that she is able to forgive,” said the Rev. Ronald Foshage, a white priest at St. Michael’s Parish. “If people can forgive, and if I can learn to forgive in that fashion, then this tragedy can have a deep impact on our lives.”
After Byrd’s death, the family created the James Byrd Jr. Foundation for Racial Healing, which conducts diversity workshops, awards scholarships to minorities and helped win passage of a hate crime bill in Texas. The foundation also runs an oral history project on racism; more than 2,600 people have described their experiences.
Foshage and other townspeople said that before the killing, blacks and whites sat separately at football games and in other public settings. But now, they say, they see less of that, with blacks and whites mingling more, and they attribute that to the Byrd family’s efforts to fight bigotry.
Similarly, townspeople are attributing the black majority on the City Council to changed attitudes.
Betty Byrd Boatner, Byrd’s younger sister, said that before the killing, she didn’t see whites and blacks playing basketball together. As for the segregated graveyard, the iron fence came down a few years ago.
Today, as they have every year on the anniversary of Byrd’s death, the Byrds will hold a service – not just as a memorial, but also as a challenge to those still shackled by prejudice.
“When you do things that hurt someone else, you need to remember that that person is someone’s child,” Boatner said. “My brother was someone’s child. If it was your family, your brother, your sister, how would you handle it?”
There is still work to do. A few years back, Byrd’s gravesite was vandalized and defaced with slurs.
“We’re getting there,” Boatner said, “but it just takes time.”