Updated at 9 p.m. ET
Twenty-one years ago, in the east Texas town of Jasper, 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. was walking home late on a Saturday night when three white men in a pick-up truck pulled up beside him. The African American man was well-known and well-liked in the town of Jasper. And when the driver, Shawn Berry, offered to give Byrd a ride, Byrd hopped right in — after all he’d known the driver most of his life.
What happened next shocked the conscience of the town, the nation and the entire world.
Death has begotten death and Wednesday evening, John William King, was executed at the Huntsville Prison in Huntsville, Texas, for his role in the gruesome and racist murder of James Byrd Jr. in the summer of 1998.
A stint in prison, and a murder
Although John “Bill” King grew up in a loving home in Jasper, his friends, family and clergy say he was changed by a stint in the George Beto Unit, a maximum security prison, where he’d been sent for stealing. There he met and befriended Lawrence Russell Brewer, a known white supremacist.
Once released, King and Brewer returned to King’s hometown as hardened, racist criminals on the prowl for black blood. Amiable and disabled, James Byrd Jr. just happened to be walking home to his apartment that early Sunday morning on June 7, 1998. King’s friend, Shawn Berry, was ferrying King and Brewer around in his truck and partying with them when they spotted Byrd. They pulled up next to Byrd and offered to give him a ride. Byrd knew the driver, Berry, well enough to accept the offer. It was a fatal mistake.
Instead of taking him home they took him to a small clearing out in the woods. After offering him a drink, Brewer and King set upon Byrd, beating him, taunting him, urinating on him. They used a baseball bat. Finally they chained him by the ankles to the back of the truck. King got in the driver’s seat and they began to drag Byrd down a deserted rural road. After 3 miles they stopped, picked up the pieces of what was left of Bryd’s body and dumped them in front of a nearby African American church to be found later that Sunday morning.
Jasper, with a population of around 8,000, is almost equally divided between black and white residents and is religiously devout. The news of Byrd’s death rippled through the black community, with many finding out after Sunday services. The shock and horror spread outward from those Baptist churches across the nation. Eventually the murder was international news.
Shawn Berry, the driver of the vehicle, was sentenced to life in prison. Lawrence Brewer was given the death penalty and was executed at Huntsville Prison on Sept. 21, 2011.
In 2001, then Gov. Rick Perry signed into law the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in Texas. George Bush as governor had originally opposed the bill and declined to attend Byrd’s funeral, citing a previous commitment. But after Bush was elected President in 2000, Perry stepped in to finish Bush’s term and signed the hate crime legislation into Texas law. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into federal law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, connecting Byrd and Shepard who was also tortured and murdered in Wyoming a few months after Byrd.
For Jasper, the reaction to the murder and trial at first tended to divide along racial lines. For whites, and for many in the town’s leadership, there was plenty of denial and a tendency to blame the media for making them look bad.
But that only went so far. Eventually the defendants were found guilty and sentenced and the media left town. Jasper was left with its reputation as a hateful place.
Eventually town boosters learned that, in order to fight the outside perception that Jasper was an unsafe and unfriendly place, they had to address the elephant in the room and acknowledge racial divisions. And in doing so have been able to make some progress in attracting new tech business in recent years. But it’s taken 2 decades.
The region’s past also comes into play. This part of east Texas had a long history of slavery and racial violence in the aftermath of reconstruction. Lynchings here were as prevalent as in the worst parts of the Deep South and a legacy of white supremacy endures at the margins.
Jasper’s African American community are now arguing that the past must not be forgotten. A bench commemorating Byrd’s life was installed by The Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing next to the county courthouse last year. But Byrd’s sister, Louvon Byrd, says the bench has already been moved to a less prominent location. What is to be remembered and what’s to be forgotten usually depends on who’s doing the remembering and who’s writing the history.
Byrd’s only son Ross has been active in opposing the death penalty for his father’s murders, citing his Christian faith.
As they did at Russell Brewer’s execution eight years ago, James Byrd Jr.’s sisters witnessed John William King’s execution Wednesday evening.