James Byrd Jr. murder 25 years ago sparked hate crime laws
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JASPER — On a spring afternoon in May, Keith Adams and James Traylor sat on lawn chairs off of Huff Creek Road, a single-lane thoroughfare outside of Jasper’s city limits.
The two men, between swigs of Bud Light, laughed and traded memories about their former neighbor, James Byrd Jr.
“He was a clown,” Adams said. “Always singing, always doing impersonations. He said he was going to make history.”
In the early morning hours of June 7, 1998, three men chained Byrd’s ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged the then 49-year-old Black man for nearly 3 miles down the same isolated and woody road where Adams and Traylor sat. The remains of Byrd’s decapitated and mutilated body were left outside of a nearby African American church to be found Sunday morning.
Byrd’s gruesome murder shocked the nation and brought an onslaught of attention to a small East Texas town fondly known as the “jewel of the forest.” In the immediate aftermath of Byrd’s killing, the town sprung to action. Church leaders and local officials sought to keep the peace and mitigate residents’ fear of more violence. The Jasper County sheriff’s department worked with local and national law enforcement to investigate the heinous crime and ultimately convict three white men of capital murder through three separate trials.
During the next two decades, Byrd’s name would continue to reverberate. State and federal hate crime laws passed in Byrd’s name in 2001 and 2009 respectively. And the execution of two of Byrd’s murderers — confirmed white supremacists — also forced the state and the public to remember that a well-liked Black man was killed for no other reason than his race.
Today, 25 years after Byrd’s death, the incident has faded to the background. Many residents of Jasper, which is home to about 7,400 people according to the most recent census estimate, say they seldom talk about the tragedy that happened in their county. And young East Texans hardly seem to recognize the name James Byrd Jr.
While Byrd’s killing has receded further into history, hate crimes and violent extremism have steadily grown, with Texas leading the nation on incidents of white supremacist propaganda. For Byrd’s family and loved ones, it’s Byrd’s jovial personality they remember most. And they hope that in remembering and educating, they can mitigate hate.
“We can’t just say that what happened to James is another day in Jasper,” said Louvon Byrd Harris, Byrd’s sister, who is 65 years old and the youngest of eight siblings. “As of now, we are on our own to keep his memory alive.”
When Harris thinks back to growing up in Jasper, she recalls feelings of warmth and safety. Her eldest brother, Byrd, played a large role. He was the family comedian and protector.
“I liked being around him because I learned a lot from him,” Harris said. “He enjoyed people and people enjoyed him.”
Byrd often ambled through town to visit neighbors and entertain them with jokes or musical performances. Byrd was a talented singer and played the piano and trumpet, according to family members and lifelong Jasper residents. He was often called upon to perform at birthday parties, funerals and other events.
“I remember him as a jolly person who loved to sing,” said Gloria Mays Washington, who graduated with Byrd from J.H. Rowe High School around the same time that a school desegregation plan took effect.
“Everybody knew James Byrd Jr.,” said Kenneth Lyons, pastor of the Jasper church that Byrd’s family attended, called Greater New Bethel Baptist Church. “Everybody loved him because of his personality and the way he’d get along with people.”
In adulthood, a fall left Byrd disabled, family members said, and the divorced father of three lived alone in Jasper. Byrd enjoyed drinking and was known to the sheriff’s department because he was arrested for minor crimes. He continued playing music and also earned money as a salesperson.
“He could sell anything,” Harris said. “By the time he’d leave, you’d have a $2,000 vacuum cleaner.”
Harris thought her brother’s vivacious attitude would keep him out of harm’s way. So when she received a phone call from her sister soon after her brother’s body was found, she was both shocked and confused.
“James was a loving person and he loved people,” Harris said. “So you can’t figure out who in the world would get mad enough at James [to kill him].”
On Sunday morning, then Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles was driving to Dallas for a golf tournament when he heard on the radio that a body was found on Huff Creek Road. Rowles spoke to the deputy on the scene, who said there appeared to have been a hit and run.
Rowles turned his truck around to drive back to Jasper. On Huff Creek Road, Rowles saw tracks on the ground and thought it would be easy to identify the car used in the incident. It quickly became clear that something more sinister had happened. Those markings were not tire tracks, but the trail left from Byrd’s dragged body. At the end of the path, Rowles saw a heavily mutilated and dismembered body. Along the way he found a trail of evidence: keys, empty beer cans and a cigarette lighter with an inverted symbol the sheriff’s office later identified as an emblem for the Ku Klux Klan.
A tip from a young man who saw Byrd riding on the back of a pickup truck Saturday night led Rowles’ team to possible suspects. Shawn Berry owned a truck that matched the witness’ description, Rowles said. And Berry lived with John King and Lawrence Brewer, two known white supremacists. By Sunday evening, all three of the men were in jail.
The day after Byrd’s murder, Rowles met with FBI officials in Beaumont. A killing so clearly motivated by the victim’s race belonged under federal jurisdiction, Rowles said. Over the next several years, Rowles worked alongside the feds and local police to complete the investigation and prosecute the three perpetrators for the hate crime.
Eight months after Byrd’s death, his family created a foundation in his name to raise awareness of the impact of hate. The Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing offered a hotline, to which people from across Texas called in asking for help with problems such as discrimination or mistreatment within the state’s justice system. The Byrd family offered counseling and helped victims attract more attention to their cases.
Since then, the foundation has distributed literature on racial tolerance in schools, provided scholarships to students and promoted anti-hate messages nationwide. For the 20th anniversary of Byrd’s death, the foundation placed a memorial bench outside the Jasper County Courthouse with the quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Those advances were punctuated by challenges. Since Byrd’s death, his grave has been twice desecrated, leading the family to install an iron gate around it to protect it from further violations.
“That’s when we knew we still had a whole lot to do,” Harris said. “Hate can eat at you and make you do the worst things imaginable.”
The Byrd family pushed state lawmakers to pass a hate crime law that would make it easier to prosecute other racially motivated crimes. Initially, then-Gov. George W. Bush would not support the measure, saying “all crimes are hate crimes,” a move that frustrated the Byrd family.
However, in 2001, then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act, which increased the penalties for crimes motivated by a person’s race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference. A few years later, President Barack Obama signed a federal hate crime act named in part for Byrd.
Since then, fundraising has been a significant challenge for the foundation.
“People don’t want to fund it because they think there’s no hate in the world,” Harris said. “There are haters everywhere.”
For Jasper residents, James Byrd Jr.’s name is not often brought up — except when they leave the Piney Woods.
“Other cities don’t let you forget it,” said Rodney Norsworthy, president of the Jasper Cemetery Association and a longtime Jasper resident. “This is why a lot of people don’t come to Jasper — that one piece of history.”
Norsworthy said he sometimes fibs and tells people he is from nearby Beaumont to avoid an unwanted conversation about Byrd’s horrific murder. And yet he’s conflicted: It’s important to remember what happened to Byrd and ensure “history doesn’t repeat itself,” he said.
Young people in Jasper and the surrounding areas said they don’t learn much about the incident in school. What little they do know, they learned about from family members. Reagan Gulley, a 23-year-old nurse who is Black and works at the Jasper-Newton County Public Health District, said her parents told her about Byrd when she graduated from high school.
“They were trying to let me know the kind of world that we live in,” said Gulley. “That you never know and you have to be careful and cautious.”
Brittany Cloud, a white 36-year-old who works as an administrative assistant at the Jasper County Judge’s office, lived through the tragedy. She recalled a recent conversation with her 13-year-old niece, who had no clue who James Byrd Jr. was. Cloud showed her niece Byrd’s grave and recounted the story.
“Her eyes just got so wide,” Cloud said. “It just blows my mind. The youth is not talking about it as much as we did.”
Last month, Jasper elected Anderson Land as mayor. Land is the second Black person to serve as the town’s mayor; the first was R.C. Horn, who was in office when Byrd was murdered. Land said Jasper will not forget what happened to Byrd — and that it should continue to move forward.
“We don’t want to keep rehashing it,” Land said. “We want to move on beyond that.
“What was done to him was tragic. In order for Jasper to grow, we need to move on.”
The Byrd family requested that the city proclaim June 7, 2023, as James Byrd Jr. Day. The mayor will issue the proclamation at the next City Council meeting on June 12, according to city secretary Karen Pumphrey. Harris said the Byrd family is also planning a memorial service at James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park, which the city named in Byrd’s honor in 1999.