An Appalling Anniversary

You just know that when it happened, our current president thought that the victim got what was coming to him, and that the perpetrators were just very fine people.

Twenty years ago this Thursday, on June 7, 1998, an African-American man named James Byrd Jr. was lynched by three white nationalists in Jasper, Texas. Days after the murder, the New York Times reported:

A black man was dragged to his death on Sunday from the back of a pickup truck in a rural section of Texas known for racist and Klan activity, and today three white men were charged with the murder.

The broken body of James Byrd Jr., 49, was discovered on Sunday morning by residents of an area just outside the East Texas town of Jasper, population 8,000. As he walked home from his parents’ house on Saturday night, Mr. Byrd was apparently picked up by the men sometime after midnight and taken to woods, where he was beaten, then chained to the truck and dragged for two miles.

Guy James Gray, the Jasper County District Attorney, called the killing ”probably the most brutal I’ve ever seen” in 20 years as a prosecutor. Mr. Byrd’s torso was found at the edge of a paved road, his head and an arm in a ditch about a mile away, according to an affidavit.

The police charged Shawn A. Berry, 23, Lawrence R. Brewer, 31, and John W. King, 23, with murder. The District Attorney said Mr. Brewer and Mr. King had racist tattoos and were Ku Klux Klan supporters, leading investigators to believe the killing was racially motivated.

The three were apparently roommates in a Jasper apartment.

R. C. Horn, Mayor of Jasper, said the victim came from a “beautiful family.” Mr. Byrd’s sisters said he had been on disability and did not have a car but often accepted rides from acquaintances or walked around Jasper, where the number of blacks almost equals that of whites.

Looking back two decades later, I can’t shake the irony that Byrd’s murder occurred at the same time right-wing Republicans were insisting that racial relations were better than ever–and that the only racism that still existed in the country was the racism allegedly directed towards whites via affirmative action programs. Byrd’s death should have exposed that right-wing argument for the lie that it was.

I don’t even want to imagine what Trump would have said had this crime occurred today. Fox News was in its infancy when Byrd was killed; there’s no doubt that had such a murder taken place in 2018, Fox would go out of its way to downplay the story.

Brewer was executed for his role in Byrd’s murder in September 2011; King is still awaiting execution; Berry was sentenced to life in prison. Byrd’s slaughter–and the vicious October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming–inspired a decade of determination to strengthen federal hate-crimes laws, ultimately leading to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in October 2009. As Rachel Maddow noted in 2015, the law was quite effective in acquiring justice for the family of James Craig Anderson, who was lynched in Jackson, Mississippi in June 2011.

Twenty years after the brutal murder of James Byrd, we must commit ourselves anew to combating bigotry, including the exploitation of bigotry for political purposes. We must also commit ourselves anew to challenging those who align themselves with bigots for reasons of political or financial expediency. After all, the racists who took the lives of James Byrd and James Craig Anderson would have attacked Kevin Jackson or Kanye West just as viciously; don’t Jackson and West realize that? Apparently not.

James Byrd’s life mattered. His death must not and cannot be forgotten.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.