Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of James Byrd Jr., a Black man who was tied to the back of a pickup truck by his ankles by three White men and dragged for three miles until he died.
His death catapulted the East Texas town of Jasper into the global spotlight, and the area is still reeling; Byrd’s death placed the words “hate crime” into the U.S. lexicon, according to Dallas News.
On June 7, 1998, Byrd asked Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King for a ride that ultimately cost him his life.
“The fact that a human being—a living, breathing human being—was jumped, beat, chain wrapped around his legs and drug behind their truck for close to three miles, that is so far over my head that anyone could do something like that, let alone three of them, could do something like that,” said Sheriff Billy Rowles, who was the Jasper County sheriff at the time of Byrd’s death.
Rowles, now sheriff in Newton County, Texas, told KXAS-TV that the crime scene and death still haunts him.
“Drag that man until his body came apart, and untied the body, left it in the middle of the road so everybody could see, and drove off and went home and went to bed.”
Racial tensions were so high following his death and during the trial of the three men that the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party fought in the streets.
“One of the most difficult things was explaining to our children why James was killed—because he was a black man,” said Byrd’s sister, Clara Byrd Taylor. “They just couldn’t understand that. They became afraid to come to Jasper themselves.”
His death prompted the passage of the Texas James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act and the federal Hate Crimes Prevention act of 2009, something that pleases his family.
“Many times in the past, these crimes were not called out, they had other words and they were kind of covered up,” his sister said. “Now, at least by having a term, a box, to put it in, you can really group it together.”
Brewer was executed in 2011 for murdering Byrd; King was sentenced to death, and just lost his final appeal; and Berry was sentenced to life in prison.
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Teddy is a multimedia journalist who serves as the culture and political writer for EBONY. His work has appeared in NBC's Owned and Operated stations, as well as DNAInfo, which covered local neighborhood news in New York City. He received his Masters in Journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY in 2017.