JASPER, Texas – 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 3 miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.
“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of 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 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.
As part of the 20th anniversary, the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing has announced plans to open a museum in Jasper and to 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 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 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.”
On the night of June 6, 1998, the three white men were riding around Jasper. Byrd, 49, a father of three, 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 3 miles as Byrd was helplessly flung side to side. His naked body — decapitated, dismembered, discarded — was found in front of a black cemetery just outside Jasper.
“They killed him because he was black,” said Billy Rowles, who was Jasper’s sheriff at the time of the killing. “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 Berry, known by many in the area because he managed the town’s only movie theater. Berry confessed, admitting to Rowles that the night had spiraled out of control.
All three men in Byrd’s case were convicted of capital murder. Brewer and King were sentenced to death, and Berry was sentenced to life in prison. Harris, her sister Clara Byrd Taylor, and a niece witnessed Brewer’s execution in 2011. King, whose latest appeal was denied in February, remains on death row.