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Dragging murder forced a hard look

JASPER, Texas — Ten years after James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death down a 3-mile stretch of country road simply because he was black, some things have changed in Jasper.

Black and white teens play basketball together at James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park. Blacks make up a majority on the City Council. And an iron fence separating the graves of whites and blacks is gone from the 171-year-old cemetery where Byrd is buried.

But Byrd's murder, which jolted the nation with its utter brutality and unvarnished racism, still casts a shadow over this timber town of 8,000 in deep East Texas.

"It is something we have to live with the rest of our lives," said Walter Diggles, a black civic leader and executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. "It is similar to Dallas, when people think of the JFK assassination, or Memphis, when people think of Martin Luther King's murder."

Ever since three white men beat the 49-year-old Byrd, chained him by the ankles to the bumper of a pickup, then pulled him down Huff Creek Road in the early hours of June 7, 1998, Jasper has been synonymous with the horrors of racism.

Byrd's remains were scattered in 75 places along the twisting path that cuts through a pine forest. His head and right arm were discovered about a mile from his mangled torso.

A decade later, Diggles said, some people are still afraid to visit Jasper.

Confronting prejudices

However, Diggles and many others say there is a hopeful part of the story too often overlooked: The murder forced the people of Jasper, a town whose population is almost evenly divided between black and white, to confront their prejudices.

"Afterward, people came together, worked together and healed together," said R.C. Horn, who was mayor at the time and is black. "Some people were not even aware of what was going on inside themselves. But after it happened, everyone took a look at themselves to see what was inside."

Byrd's murderers were arrested and convicted. John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer are on death row. Shawn Allen Berry is serving a life sentence.

Clergy called on residents to stay calm and stay home when the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan came to march. And the residents did.

Many also saw the response of the Byrd family ("We are not hating; we are hurting," James Byrd Sr. said after his son's murder) as inspiring, ennobling.

The Rev. Ronald Foshage, a white priest at St. Michael's Parish, and other townspeople said that before the killing, blacks and whites sat separately at football games and in other public settings. But now, they say, they see less of that.

Today, as they have every year on the anniversary of Byrd's death, his family will hold a service — not just as a memorial, but also as a challenge to those still shackled by prejudice.

"When you do things that hurt someone else, you need to remember that that person is someone's child," said Betty Byrd Boatner, Byrd's younger sister. "My brother was someone's child. If it was your family, your brother, your sister, how would you handle it?"

Dragging murder forced a hard look 06/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 10:45am]
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