In Memory of James Byrd, Jr. - 20 Years Later
Twenty years ago, on June 7, 1998, was one of the most horrific hate crimes in America. I was 30 years old when I was watching the news about the violent murder of James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged to death in Jasper, TX by three white supremacists (John William King, Shawn Allen Berry and Lawrence Russell Brewer).
James Byrd, Jr. was walking home from a party and was stopped by three white supremacists. They asked if he wanted a ride home and Byrd accepted. It was normal in Jasper, TX to hitch a ride from a stranger. They drove to a convenient store, bought liquor and drove to an undisclosed area and started drinking.
Suddenly, two of the white supremacists started attacking Byrd. It was difficult for Byrd to defend himself because he was drunk. They got a can of black spray paint and sprayed it in his face, took off his clothes, chained him by his ankles to the back of a pick up truck and dragged his body down Huff Creek Road for 2-3 miles. Portions of his corpse were found in 75 different spots.
The next day, Byrd's body parts and personal belongings were stretched for about 2 miles. His head was in a ditch, torso, arm, pieces of his flesh, dentures, keys, hat and wallet were found. The rest of his remains were left at a African American church and cemetery.
I was filled was sadness and anger. This could have been my father, uncle, brother, husband, son or friend. I was in disbelief to think that this type of hatred existed in 1998. Today in 2018, the hatred is more blatant than ever. With the killing of African Americans, Driving While Black, Cook Out While Black, Starbucks While Black, Air BNB While Black, LA Fitness While Black, Old Navy While Black, Community Service While Black, etc., that it makes it very difficult to be black in America.
This past March, I traveled to Jasper, TX to get information about James Byrd, Jr. and I also did research on the internet, watched videos and read the book “Hate Crime – The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, TX” by Joyce King.
As I was driving, I saw a sign that said “Welcome to Jasper ‘ Jewel of the Forest” but I didn't have that welcome feeling. When I think of Jasper, TX, I immediately think of James Byrd, Jr. Once I entered the City of Jasper, my whole thought process changed. A lot of emotions set in about how I was going to feel locating the sites of James Byrd, Jr.
My first stop was James Byrd, Jr.'s grave site. He is buried at Jasper City Cemetery. The cemetery is not gated with about 450+ graves. The grounds are in good condition and well taken care of. There are, I believe, two other cemeteries next to Jasper City Cemetery. There are also homes that surround the cemeteries.
From a distance I saw James Byrd’s grave. An iron gate surrounds his grave. James Byrd, Jr.’s grave has been vandalized twice and someone tried to sell dirt from his grave for auction. I was utterly disgusted!!!!!!
As I stood at the foot of his grave, I prayed. I prayed that he is resting peacefully regardless of the hate and racism that comes at his sacred resting place. Even in death, he is a threat.
Next to his grave is his mother, Mrs. Stella Mae Byrd, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 85 and the future resting place for James Byrd, Sr.
After paying my respects, I drove to the deadly road, Huff Creek Road, where James Byrd, Jr. was dragged for 3 miles.
When I approached Huff Creek Road & Co Rd 278, I was scared about driving down this road of terror, but I wanted to drive through this narrow wooded murderous trail to place a memorial wreath.
I slowly turned into Huff Creek Road. While driving, I can hear the crackling of the rocks on my tires. My car was swaying from left to right because the road was very rocky. I was driving about 10-15 miles per hour.
All of a sudden, my chest started to tighten up, I had a difficult time breathing, my hands were shaking and sweating on the steering wheel. Then, all of a sudden, I started to cry because I couldn’t believe that this actually happened. I thought about Mr. Byrd screaming, hollering and begging for his life as he was being dragged at a high rate of speed.
I thought about his body parts scattered on the road that I’m actually driving on.
I was too scared to get out of the car to place flowers in his memory. Driving down Huff Creek Road was terrifying. The three mile road seemed like it took me forever to get to the end of the road. When I reached the main road, I was able to breathe. It seemed like I held my breath for several hours. I don’t think I can drive through that road ever again.
I had to pull over on the side of the main road for a few minutes to pull myself together because I felt mentally drained. Once I was able to drive, I went to James Byrd, Jr. Memorial Park.
In 1999, the City of Jasper erected the James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park in his honor. The park has a basketball court, playground and picnic tables.
The three white supremacists were all convicted.
Lawrence Russel Brewer was executed by lethal injection in 2011 and was not remorseful for the killing of James Byrd, Jr.
John William King is currently on Death Row. In Feb 2018, he filed for a final appeal and was denied. While in prison, he has been attacked and raped by black prisoners. He also wrote a letter to Brewer and stated “Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history and shall die proudly remembered if need be."
Shawn Allen Berry went to the police and confessed to the killing of James Byrd, Jr. but did not take part in the dragging and was, supposedly, a horrified bystander. He received life in prison. He will have to serve 40 years before he has a chance for parole.
In 2001, former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas signed into law the James Byrd Jr Hate Crime Act that strengthens the penalties for offenses against minorities, gays and others.
In 2009, former President Barack Obama signed into law the James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act that makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.
The murder of James Byrd, Jr. will always be a permanent stain in Jasper, TX.
I hope there is some healing for the city and that James Byrd, Jr.'s memory continues to stay alive. I pray that his three children are doing well. James Byrd, Jr. was an amazing singer, entertainer and the life of the party. He loved the song Purple Rain and singer Al Green.
James Byrd, Jr. told his family and friends several times that he was going to make Jasper, TX famous and was going to put the city on the map. It is sad that his murder put the City of Jasper on the map with a open scar that will continue to fester and haunt the city forever.
Continue to Rest In Peace, Brother James Byrd, Jr.