In Texas, a Decades-Old Hate Crime, Forgiven but Never Forgotten

The sun set over a section of Huff Creek Road, where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck by three white supremacists on June 7, 1998.

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JASPER, Tex. — Sometime after church but before dinner, Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the front door of James and Stella Byrd’s home. He stepped into the living room, removed his white cowboy hat and bowed his head. Then, with a somber look on his face that the Byrds still remember years later, he delivered the news that their son James Byrd Jr. was dead.

The horrific circumstances surrounding his death they would learn later: Chained by his ankles to a pickup truck by three men, he had been dragged three miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.

“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of Mr. Byrd’s younger sisters, whispered as she sat on a picnic bench at a memorial park now named in his honor. “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.”

The family forgave Mr. Byrd’s three killers long ago and made peace with Jasper, the small East Texas town where they have lived for three generations. But as the nation faces a spread in bias crime incidents, the family wants to ensure the public remembers one of the worst hate crimes of the 20th century. In the years since Mr. Byrd’s death, both state and federal hate crime laws bear his name.

As part of the 20th anniversary, the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing has announced plans to open a museum in Jasper and digitize an anti-hate oral history project. Earlier this month, the foundation unveiled a memorial bench on the grounds of the county courthouse where two of the three killers were prosecuted. The inscription reads: “Be The Change That You Want To See In The World.”

“It’s not just about remembering the painful details of our brother’s death,” said Louvon Harris, 60, another of Mr. Byrd’s sisters and president of the foundation. “It’s about keeping his memory alive so that this never happens again.”

That has become more challenging in a town almost a generation removed from the crime.

“It’s not something you promote, but we don’t want to forget it. We have the anniversaries and the park and bench that serves as reminders,” said Gary Gatlin, the town’s interim mayor, who was city attorney at the time Mr. Byrd was murdered. “If someone comes up to us and says, ‘Who is James Byrd Jr.?’ the answer is a guy who was tragically killed by mean, mean people. We don’t deny it.”

About 15 miles away, in neighboring Newton County, Billy Rowles was in his office the other day listening to Slim Harpo, his favorite swamp blues musician. He looked the part of the archetypal Southern sheriff, with his Wrangler jeans, Texas tie and cowboy hat. Sheriff Rowles came out of retirement two years ago to run Newton’s force, but admits that on every anniversary of Mr. Byrd’s death, June 7, he is transported back to the days when, as Jasper’s sheriff, he was in charge of investigating the grisly murder.

Sheriff Rowles, 73, thinks about the crime that for a while, at least to the outside world, defined Jasper. He sees things this way: What happened on an old country road is a permanent scar that time is finally healing. “Do we ever get over something like that? No,” he said. “And we shouldn’t. But it finally doesn’t come up in conversations every day any more.”

On that Saturday night, the three white men were riding around Jasper. Mr. Byrd, who was black, was walking home after drinking with friends when the driver of the truck, Shawn Allen Berry, offered him a ride. At some point overnight, the three attacked him, spray painted his face, then used a logging chain to tie him to the rear bumper of the truck. They drove along Huff Creek Road, an isolated path lined thick with pine and sweet gum trees, for three miles as Mr. Byrd was helplessly flung side to side. His naked body — decapitated, dismembered, discarded — was found in front of a black cemetery just outside Jasper.

By the Sunday afternoon, Sheriff Rowles and Sergeant Carter were at the Byrd family’s doorstep. Ms. Boatner still remembers the tiniest details of those moments. She still recalls the stricken way Sergeant Carter, a childhood friend who is now a captain, looked at her and the stillness of the room before her mother’s cries. Ms. Harris still remembers the panicked phone call from a sister and the way her words ran together, “gethomenow.” Sheriff Rowles remembers the heartbreak in Stella Byrd’s eyes.

“He was tortured like an animal,” Ms. Harris said, her words sharpened by anger. “I can’t see a human being doing this to another if you have any amount of humanity in you.”

Initially, Sheriff Rowles believed Mr. Byrd was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. But the depraved method of death, the gruesome trail left behind and a police colleague’s insistence the crime was racially motivated, convinced him that this was something different, something dark.

On a recent June afternoon, Sheriff Rowles returned to the patch of asphalt where Mr. Byrd, 49 and a father of three, had been dumped. It has been 15 years since he’d been there.

“They killed him because he was black,” Sheriff Rowles, who is white, said plainly, nodding his head to emphasize this truth was not negotiable. “This was the first time I heard the words ‘hate crime.’”

The police quickly arrested two avowed white supremacists, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King, along with Mr. Berry, known by many in the area because he managed the town’s only movie theater. Mr. Berry confessed, admitting to Sheriff Rowles that the night had spiraled out of control.

Suddenly, Jasper, a timber town with a population of about 8,000 back then and almost evenly divided between white and black residents, was thrust into the spotlight and viewed nationally through the lens of Southern racial history. Some cast the town and the surrounding region as a den of hate. Others believed Jasper was its own kind of victim, unfairly judged for a crime that was randomly executed there.

A few residents even pushed the idea that the murder was a drug deal gone wrong, a stubborn theory that endures today. Sheriff Rowles scoffs at the idea. He has spent 20 years saying the same thing over and over: This was about race. Period.

Even after two decades, residents vividly remember the inextricable link between the town and the murder. Some shied away from telling outsiders where they were from, instead referencing East Texas, or an hour outside Beaumont. For Mr. Byrd’s seven siblings, it was even more personal. When the Jasper dragging came up in conversation, their response was, “that was my brother.”

“Potbellied, snuff-dipping, beer-drinking, redneck, bigoted — that’s how everybody had us figured,” said Sheriff Rowles, the loaded, colorful description rolling off his tongue because he has said it so often. “We were trying to heal, but at the same time trying to prove people’s ideas about us wrong,” he said, adding that the mayor and other civic and business leaders were black at the time.

Yet in the century-old tradition, Mr. Byrd was buried downhill in the black section of the Jasper City Cemetery, not far from downtown, past the V.F.W. Post and First Baptist Church and the soaring water tower that hovers above the town.

In the days and weeks after the murder, the Byrd family called for calm, with the patriarch famously saying, “We are not hating; we are hurting.”

Jasper’s faith community — black and white ministers — worked together to ease racial tension. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Jr. arrived. At one point, members of both the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party rushed into town for protests. It was a spectacle built upon the fractured fault line of race.

“We thought this place was going to burn,” said the Rev. Ronald Foshage, pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church and three other small churches in the community, and a Byrd Foundation board member.

“It was a terrible, terrible time.”

What started as community conversations about an unfathomable murder grew into an unsparing examination of race relations and inequities in Jasper. The town removed an iron fence that had separated black and white graves in the cemetery where Mr. Byrd rests. His own grave is fenced after it was desecrated twice.

Mr. Foshage and the Byrd family’s pastor at the time, the Rev. Kenneth Lyons, traveled the nation talking about Jasper, hate crimes and the role faith played in reconciliation. Mr. Byrd’s legacy now includes Texas’s James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, strengthening punishments for hate crimes, signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001. Eight years later, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the law to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Mr. Shepard was a gay college student who was tortured and beaten to death four months after Mr. Byrd was killed.

All three men in Mr. Byrd’s case were convicted of capital murder. Mr. Brewer and Mr. King were sentenced to death, and Mr. Berry was sentenced to life in prison. Ms. Harris, her sister Clara Byrd Taylor, and a niece witnessed Mr. Brewer’s execution in 2011. Mr. King, whose latest appeal was denied in February, remains on death row.

With the trials almost behind them, the family looked for ways to memorialize their brother. They kept coming back to the idea that hate had driven the viciousness of the crime. So they started a small foundation in 1999 with a goal of reducing hate crimes through educational programs and cultural diversity training. For a while, the group met regularly. They held annual events, gave scholarships and opened the James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park on donated city property.

But over the last several years, the foundation has been inactive and has lost members. Ms. Boatner was its leader until about six months ago when she resigned to care for her 93-year-old father, who has Alzheimer’s.

Ms. Harris said they are regrouping and hope to find grants to purchase a lot next to the park. They want to convert the house into a multicultural museum that would focus on hate crimes and race reconciliation, and include a computer center. Mr. Byrd’s mother, Stella, kept a small museum at the family home before it burned down several years ago.

The foundation also plans to relaunch an oral history project, which was led by a San Francisco activist, Lani Silver, who also directed a similar Holocaust project. Ms. Silver spent three years gathering more than 2,000 stories about racism and everyday injustices from people across the country before her death in 2009. The histories, in written and audio form, are in storage in Ms. Boatner’s Jasper home.

“They had been carrying their stories, carrying their parents’ and grandparents’ stories,” Ms. Harris said of the powerful testimonies of racism and hate. “The more we share these stories, the more we can stop the hate.”

If you have experienced, witnessed or read about a hate crime or incident of bias or harassment, you can use this form to send information about the incident to Race/Related and other partners in the Documenting Hate project.

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