June 7, 1998: James Byrd, Jr., of Texas is Killed by White Supremacists

2 Posted by - February 6, 2019 - Heartbreaking, LATEST POSTS

June 7, 1998: James Byrd, Jr., of Texas is killed when white supremacists drag him behind a pickup truck along an asphalt pavement.

James Byrd, Jr. was an African-American who was murdered by three men, of whom at least two were white supremacists, in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King dragged Byrd behind a pick-up truck along an asphalt road. Byrd, who remained conscious throughout most of the ordeal, was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head.

The murderers drove on for another mile before dumping his torso in front of an African-American cemetery in Jasper. Byrd’s lynching-by-dragging gave impetus to passage of a Texas hate crimes law. It later led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, which passed on October 22, 2009, and which President Barack Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.

THE MURDER:
On June 7, 1998, Byrd, age 49, accepted a ride from Shawn Berry (age 24), Lawrence Russell Brewer (age 31) and John King (age 23). Berry, who was driving, was acquainted with Byrd from around town. Instead of taking Byrd home, the three men took Byrd to a remote county road out of town, beat him severely, urinated on him and chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck before dragging him for three miles. Brewer later claimed that Byrd’s throat had been slashed by Berry before he was dragged. However, forensic evidence suggests that Byrd had been attempting to keep his head up while being dragged, and an autopsy suggested that Byrd was alive during much of the dragging. Byrd died after his right arm and head were severed after his body hit a culvert. Byrd’s brain and skull were found intact, further suggesting he maintained consciousness while being dragged.

Berry, Brewer and King dumped their victim’s mutilated remains in front of an African-American church on Huff Creek Road; the three men then went to a barbecue. Along the area where Byrd was dragged, authorities found a wrench with “Berry” written on it. They also found a lighter that was inscribed with “Possum”, which was King’s prison nickname. The following morning, Byrd’s limbs were found scattered across a seldom-used road. The police found 81 places that were littered with Byrd’s remains. State law enforcement officials, along with Jasper’s District Attorney, determined that since Brewer and King were well-known white supremacists, the murder was a hate crime. They decided to call upon the Federal Bureau of Investigation less than 24 hours after the discovery of Byrd’s remains.

King had several racist tattoos: a black man hanging from a tree, Nazi symbols, the words “Aryan Pride,” and the patch for a gang of white supremacist inmates known as the Confederate Knights of America. In a jailhouse letter to Brewer that was intercepted by jail officials, King expressed pride in the crime and said he realized in committing the murder he might have to die. “Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!” King wrote. An officer investigating the case also testified that witnesses said King had referenced The Turner Diaries after beating Byrd.

Berry, Brewer and King were tried and convicted for Byrd’s murder. Brewer and King received the death penalty, while Berry was sentenced to life in prison.

Brewer was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011 while King remains on Texas’ death row while appeals are pending.

REACTIONS TO THE MURDER:
Numerous aspects of the Byrd murder echo lynching traditions. These include mutilation or decapitation and revelry, such as a barbecue or a picnic, during or after. Byrd’s murder was strongly condemned by Jesse Jackson and the Martin Luther King Centeras an act of vicious racism and focused national attention on the prevalence of white supremacist prison gangs. The victim’s family created the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing after his death. Basketball star Dennis Rodman paid for funeral expenses and gave Byrd’s family $25,000. Fight promoter Don King gave Byrd’s children $100,000 to be put towards their education expenses.

In 1999 Chantal Akerman, inspired by the literary works of William Faulkner, set out to make a film about the beauty of the American South. However, after arriving on location (in Jasper, Texas) and learning of the brutal racist murder, she changed her focus. Akerman made Sud (French for “South”) a meditation on the events surrounding the crime and the history of racial violence in the United States.

In 2003, a movie about the crime, titled Jasper, Texas, was produced and aired on Showtime. The same year, a documentary named Two Towns of Jasper, made by filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, premiered on PBS’s P.O.V. series.

While at radio station WARW in Washington, D.C., DJ Doug Tracht (also known as “The Greaseman”) made a derogatory comment about James Byrd after playing Lauryn Hill’s song “Doo Wop (That Thing)”. The February 1999 incident proved catastrophic to Tracht’s radio career, igniting protests from black and white listeners alike. He was quickly fired from WARW and lost his position as a volunteer deputy sheriff in Falls Church, Virginia.

In May 2004 two white teenagers were arrested and charged with criminal mischief for desecrating James Byrd Jr.’s grave with racial slurs and profanities.

IMPACT ON U.S. POLITICS:
Some advocacy groups, such as the NAACP National Voter Fund, made an issue of this case during George W Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000. They accused Bush of implicit racism since, as governor of Texas, he opposed hate crime legislation. Also, citing a prior commitment, Bush could not appear at Byrd’s funeral. Because two of the three murderers were sentenced to death and the third to life in prison (all charged with and convicted of capital murder, the highest felony level in Texas) Governor Bush maintained that “we don’t need tougher laws”.

The 77th Texas Legislature passed the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. With the signature of Governor Rick Perry who inherited the balance of Bush’s unexpired term, the act became Texas state law in 2001.

In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation,gender identity, or disability.

MUSICAL TRIBUTES:
?In 2010, Alabama musician Matthew Mayfield penned, recorded, and released a song in Byrd’s honor. The tune, titled “Still Alive,” is the fourth track on Mayfield’s EP You’re Not Home. “Still Alive” clearly related a stark bitterness towards racism and equated such hate crimes to genocide.

?”Tell Me Why” by Will Smith featuring Mary J. Blige mentions Byrd on Will Smith’s fourth album, Lost and Found.

?”The Ballad of James Byrd” is another tribute to Byrd, written and performed by Southern Californian musician Ross Durand.

?Houston rapper E.S.G. mentions Byrd on the song “Realest Rhyming” from his 1999 album Shinin’ N’ Grindin’, stating “…let the Klu Klux know that I’mma blast ya/heard how ya done James Byrd down up in Jasper.”

?”The New Hell” by death metal band The Famine mentions Byrd on their album The Architects of Guilt (2011).

?”Jasper”, byConfrontation Camp, is the fifth track on the album Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (2000).

?”100 Miles” by Rollins Band is a b-side track from their album “Get Some Go Again.” The song’s lyrics are written in the first person about a vigilante who takes the lives of Byrd’s killers (2000).

?”Guitar Drag” by sound artist Christian Marclay is a video- and sound-installation about the murder of James Byrd (2000).

?”I Heard ‘Em Say” by Ryan Bingham is about Byrd’s murder and the racially charged climate around Jasper following the crime.

 

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6 Comments

  • Avonna Brown June 7, 2017 - 8:50 am Reply

    I would like to sign up for this post. Very informative for us African Americans.

  • Cynthia December 9, 2017 - 12:20 am Reply

    It’s amazing that any group would consider themselves “Supreme”, considering they have to take a bath the same as anyone regardless of color…or they will get the same results. The playing field was created equal by the creator. A Bath..or No Bath..Not to be smelly…or to be smelly. Color doesn’t matter!! No supremacy, Equally Human!
    Anyone that won’t smell without a bath or wash off for 7 days don’t exist as Humans. “All” people are equal, human, and must/should use soap and water. JUST SAYING!!🙄

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