Standing as one of the most-heinous hate crimes ever, the lynching-style murder of James Byrd Jr. (pictured right) at the hands of three White men in Texas served as a painful reminder that racism was very much alive in America, even on the cusp of the 21st century.
On June 7, 1998, the 49-year-old Byrd would find himself on a Texas road near the town of Jasper at night, when a trio of men, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer (pictured), and John King, offered him a ride. It was later reported that Byrd and Berry knew each other. The friendly gesture turned deadly, though, when 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. 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.
The men were quickly arrested, with Jasper finding itself uncomfortably under the glare of scrutiny and shocked stares. Police charged the trio with capital murder, as each of the men was tried in separate cases. King, considered the ringleader, and Brewer were part of a White supremacy group; they reportedly met in prison when they joined the gang years prior.
Both men were sentenced to death row with Brewer being killed by lethal injection last September. On the eve of his death, Brewer said he felt no remorse and would do it all over again. King currently sits on Texas’ death row list, while Berry, who is serving life in prison, was spared capital punishment after prosecutors determined by some manner of miracle that he was not a racist.
Watch James Byrd Jr.’s sad end here:
Byrd’s death sparked debate nationwide and inspired several public figures and celebrities to show their support for the family. Basketball player Dennis Rodman paid for the Byrd’s funeral and gave the family a large amount of money. Fight promoter Don King also opened up his wallet and gave money toward Byrd’s children for their educational expenses.
Obviously, all of the response wasn’t positive. Popular Washington rock radio station host Doug “The Greaseman” Tracht mentioned the case after playing a clip of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” hit, saying, “And they wonder why we drag them behind trucks.” His remarks sparked angry protests from fellow radio personality Donnie Simpson and other area notables. Tracht was promptly fired and didn’t work in radio for years.
The FBI has been collecting hate crime statistics since 1995, calling the instances “bias-related” and separating them by racial, sexual, and religious groupings. In 1998 alone, 4,321 race-related incidents occurred. The year 1999 saw a rise in bias-related offenses with 5,240. Of that number, the victims were overwhelmingly African American.
Not surprisingly, this trend of racist offenses, usually involving intimidation and assault, has continued. While hate crime offenses have dropped, the rise in crimes against Blacks is remarkable.
In 2010’s FBI report, of the 7,690 reported incidents, 48. 4 percent of the crimes were racially motivated attacks, with sexual orientation bias coming in second at 19.1 percent. What this shows is that racists — emboldened by a lack of retribution and other factors — have ramped up their efforts to display their ignorance and false dominance over others they feel are beneath them.
Although Byrd’s death continues to leave a sour memory on the minds of many, his death inspired a very necessary legislation, which was originally enacted in the Texas courts in 2001. In 2009, the Matthew Shephard 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. Whether or not the law has had its desired effects continues to remain a point of contention, but it does promise some security and insurances that hate crimes will be thoroughly investigated by authorities.
James Byrd Jr. should not — and will not — be forgotten.