Remembering James Byrd Jr.: What Have We Learned About Hatred & Racism

On the 16th Anniversary of one of America’s most heinous hate crimes in modern times, Black America must not forget James Byrd Jr.

 “The horrific murder of James Byrd, Jr. several years ago is a reminder that racism still exists in this country. We must never forget Byrd’s murder and we must work hard to counter racism whenever it raises its ugly head,” said Dave Atwood, Houston Peace and Justice Center. “Dr. King spoke about creating the “Beloved Community”. Racism, prejudice and bigotry have no place in the Beloved Community.”

 Facts About Byrd

James Byrd Jr. was born in Beaumont, Texas, one of nine children, to Stella and James Byrd Sr. In 1967, Byrd, who was African American, graduated from the last segregated class at Jasper’s Rowe High School. Byrd went on to marry and have three children.

“I have come to know, love and admire the children of James Byrd, Jr.,” Atwood said. “They represent the best that America has to offer the future.”

Texas Activist Ricky Jason –

“Racism is still real in Jasper, in Texas and across America,” Jason said. “Nothing has changed. After James Byrd, the lynching continues and people are living in 2014 like they are stuck in the 1940’s.”

Jason, who made a documentary of the life of James Byd Jr., hoped that his documentary would bring some healing to a fractured community and usher in an new era of cooperation, peace, harmony and forgiveness among people, but that is yet to occur.

“Our purpose with that award winning film was to put a face on the man and demonstrate that James Byrd Jr. was one of us- a member of humanity, the human race and did not deserve to be beaten,… dragged cruelly and killed that fateful day in Jasper.”

Jason said the documentary called the “Life and Death of James Byrd Jr” is available for the world to see on You Tube free of charge.

Jason remains hopeful that someday people will use the anniversary to truly reflect on race relations and move beyond the selfish and petty issues that divide the races. 

Black Historian Frank Jackson said that racism and hate continues to be a problem that is perpetuated and passed from generation to generation.

In Texas, it seems to stem from the old slavery mentality that still exists and the fact that some Texans still cannot fully surrender to the fact that the South lost the Civil War.

“Hate is a time bomb that once ignited is hard to turn off,” said Jackson. “It reveals itself, infects, expresses itself and wreaks havoc because it causes people to lose sight of humanity.”

According to Jackson, Byrd was one who bore the sheer wrath of a mentality that has existed since the days of slavery that pitted one socioeconomic and ethnic group against another with the idea that one race (Whites) could use sheer intimidation and force to send a strong message that it was more superior, smarter and powerful than the other races (Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics).

“America was built on the blood and competition of people who took lands and power from people who did not have the power to fight back,” he said. “That historical competitive-type hate is what oozed out and James Byrd became a victim of that kind of hate and violence that has been embedded in our culture.”

It Was The Hate Crime Heard Round the World

It was June 7, 1998, that James Byrd Jr., 49, saw the sunrise for the final time before his life was cut short at the hands of three White men. His  brutal killing served as a painful reminder that racism is very much alive in America and that the potential for terror and the specter of harassment still haunts in small towns across the South.

That fateful day, Byrd found himself on a road near the town of Jasper at night, when a trio of men, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King, offered him a ride.

According to reports, Byrd and Berry knew each other. However, the friendly gesture eventually turned deadly. Byrd got in the bed of their pick-up truck, but the men did not take him home. Instead, they drove him to a desolate, wooded road east of town.

More specific reports indicate that the men savagely beat Byrd and chained his ankles to the back of the pickup truck Berry was driving, dragging him three miles over asphalt and road and causing severe injuries. Reports go on to say Byrd was said to be conscious during most of the harrowing ordeal, finally dying by way of a decapitation after his body hit a culvert in the road. Berry, Brewer and King drove on for another mile before dumping his torso in front of an African-American church and cemetery in Jasper off Huff  Creek Road.

During the trial, prosecutors said Byrd’s execution style torture and attack was intended to promote Brewer’s fledgling white supremacist organization.

Brewer was a former “Exalted Cyclops” of a racist prison gang affiliated with the Klu Klux Klan. He spent most of his adult life in prison for burglary, cocaine possession and parole violations.

He even took the witness stand and contended that he was a bystander, not a killer and tearfully admitted being present when Byrd was dragged to his death but, he said, “I didn’t mean to cause his death. I had no intentions of killing anybody.”

Brewer said accomplice John William King initiated the killing by fighting with Byrd. He also said the third defendant, Shawn Berry, slashed Byrd’s throat and then chained him to Berry’s pickup. Brewer admitted kicking Byrd and spraying Byrd’s face with Black paint.

Brewer was executed on  September 22, 2011 by lethal injection for his role in Byrd’s killing.

Byrd’s tragic death inspired very necessary hate crimes legislation, which was originally enacted in the Texas courts in 2001. His death laid open the vicious horror and after effects of hate and revealed that it was not just a problem isolated to Texas, but is an issue nationwide.

That prompted calls by Civil Rights groups, the Anti-defamation League and others for legislation that offers some protection and piece of mind against those who harbor, promote and act on hate.

In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama and expanded on the 1969 federal hate crime law to include acts motivated by racial, sexual, gender, religious, and ethnic bias.

Activist Deric Muhammad –

“The brutal, savage and mysterious death of Alfred Wright in Hemphill and other cases are evidence that 16 years after the tragic lynching of James Byrd nothing has changed. As a matter of fact, the seating of a Black president has only ratcheted up White America’s hatred for us. Our only recourse is to stop expecting love from a segment of society that has historically oppressed us. We have to stop “looking for love in all the wrong places.” We must promote and cultivate love among one another. We must gather our resources and build something to help ourselves. If anything has been learned over the past 16 years it is that nothing has changed and nothing will change until we unify and force into existence a new reality. James Byrd will forever live in our hearts and in our history.”

Hate Crime Still A U.S. Problem

The FBI has just released its latest hate crime statistics report for 2012, and the numbers show that we as a nation still have a way to go toward alleviating these crimes that have such a devastating impact on communities.

For the 2012 time frame, law enforcement agencies reported 5,796 hate crime incidents involving 6,718 offenses, down from 2011 figures of 6,222 incidents involving 7,254 offenses. Also during 2012, there were 7,164 hate crime victims reported (which include individuals, businesses, institutions, and society as a whole), down from 7,713 in 2011.

The full hate crime report can be viewed on the Federal Bureau of Investigations website, but here are a few highlights:

48.3 percent of the 5,790 single-bias incidents were racially motivated, while 19.6 percent resulted from sexual orientation bias and 19 percent from religious bias.

Of the 7,164 hate crime victims, 55.4 percent were victims of crimes against persons and 41.8 percent were victims of crimes against property. The remaining 2.8 percent were victims of crimes against society (like drug offenses, gambling, and prostitution).

39.6 percent of the victims of crimes against persons suffered simple assaults, while 37.5 percent were intimidated and 21.5 percent were victims of aggravated assault. (Law enforcement also reported 10 murders and 15 rapes as hate crimes.)

An overwhelming majority—75.6 percent—of the victims of crimes against property were victimized by acts of destruction, damage, and/or vandalism.

Of the 5,331 known offenders, 54.6 percent were white and 23.3 percent were Black.

“Black people must know themselves and know their history,” Jackson said. “It is important to understand that we must wake up, compete, cooperate with one another and survive because the game is on and the enemy is no longer at the door, he is in the house.”

What America should know is that hate kills.

It killed two U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. 

It killed major Civil Rights Freedom Fighters, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner to name a few.

It killed citizens like Emmit Till , Alfred Wright, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and James Byrd Jr.

Kofi Taharka, National Chair of the National Black United Front-

“What we should learn is that Global White Supremacy/ Racism is the highest code in America. It doesnt change it’s principles only it’s manifestations. It is up to us to destroy the system” I was in Jasper several times after James Byrd Death!

Hope For The Future

Jackson holds out hope that the torch of hate will dim and that people will come to their senses that we all must learn to live together on one planet.

“Collectively, I believe Texans and Americans are rejecting hate,” he said. “It used to be the norm, but society is deciding that it is not the cultural norm and not what we want as a people. We may not see the flames extinguished in our life time, but I believe it is slowly extinguishing itself.”

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