In 1998, in the small town of Jasper, TX, a local sheriff heard the words "hate crime" for the first time. It was not the last, as the brutal death of a Black man, James Byrd Jr., at the hands of three white supremacists soon changed Jasper - and the United States - forever. The lynching sparked protests in the small town and received national attention.
The senseless and tragic murder led to important hate crime legislation in the United States, at both federal and state levels. Decades later, the name James Byrd Jr. is synonymous with strict punishment for acts committed out of hatred for a specific race, gender, or sexual orientation. Members of the Byrd family have also traveled the country working to end hate crimes through education.
Although Byrd's murder should never have happened, his death led to one of many laws named after victims that will memorialize him forever and help protect people for years to come.
Three White Supremacists Beat James Byrd Jr. After Offering Him A Ride
On June 7, 1998, James Byrd Jr. was walking home after a night of drinking with friends. A truck drove up beside him, and the driver, Shawn Allen Berry, offered him a ride. Inside the vehicle were two of Berry's friends, John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer.
It's unclear whether Byrd accepted the ride or the men forced him into the truck. Regardless, they eventually drove Byrd to a remote area, beat him, and tied him to the back of their truck by his ankles with a logging chain.
The men dragged Byrd for three miles. Authorities found parts of his body scattered along the road.
Byrd's Family Heard Rumors A Black Man Was Killed Before They Knew It Was Him
"I just knew something was terribly wrong, It's such a small town that we had already heard the rumors that a Black man was found dead, but we didn't know who it was. Until the knock on our door."
All Three Of Byrd's Killers Had Prior Criminal Convictions
Shawn Allen Berry, John William King, and Lawrence Russell Brewer had previous run-ins with the law - two were convicted burglars, and one was a drug offender. Residents of Jasper knew King as a white supremacist; his tattoos signified Aryan affiliation, contained Nazi imagery, and pictured a Black man being lynched. Meanwhile, Berry was a member of the Confederate Knights of America, a group associated with the KKK.
Along the route the three men dragged Byrd, law enforcement found a lighter decorated with a Klan symbol. They quickly determined the murder was likely a hate crime and arrested the three men. Berry soon confessed to the crime; he told the sheriff the night had spiraled out of control.
A Jury Convicted The Three Men Of Capital Murder, And Two Received Death Sentences
A jury convicted the three men of capital murder. Brewer and King received death sentences, while Berry, who confessed to police, received a life sentence. The state of Texas executed Brewer by lethal injection in 2011.
King appealed his death sentence, but he was denied. He remains on death row as of October 2018.
The Killing Shocked The People Of Jasper, TX
A column ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after Byrd's murder, detailing race relations in Jasper and East Texas at large. In 1998, Jasper was far more integrated than its surrounding areas. Unlike many towns in the region, Jasper thrived economically, which some speculate helped to keep racial tensions lower than they were in neighboring areas.
Johnny Ray Baker, a Black pastor and local leader, said Jasper was not as openly racist as other towns he'd visited. But after Byrd's murder, hidden racial tensions bubbled to the surface. While both white and Black residents felt heartbreak over Byrd's death, the Black community questioned whom they could truly trust.
Years later, Cassy Burleson, a professor at Baylor and lead researcher for the Jasper Dragging Incident oral history project, said the views of white residents of Jasper have shifted. While most once viewed Byrd's murder as a racially motivated crime, many now deny that the three men killed Byrd based on the color of his skin.
Both The KKK And The New Black Panthers Protested In Jasper
According to Reverend Ronald Foshage, the pastor of four small churches in the community, the residents of Jasper "thought [the town] was going to burn" after Byrd's murder. While the Byrd family called for calm, Black and white ministers in Jasper worked together in an attempt to heal the community and ease tension.
Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Jr. came to Jasper, as did members of the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party. Immediately the two groups clashed and staged protests.
James Byrd Sr. urged calm, saying, "We are not hating; we are hurting." Soon after, the Byrd family, alongside activists, began a campaign to change the laws surrounding hate crimes in the name of James Byrd Jr.