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The Star-Telegram (Texas)

James Byrd, Jr.:10 Years Later, 'Horrific Death' in Jasper Won't Fade From Memory

Bill Hanna

Ten years after the brutal dragging death of James Byrd Jr., his family is unwilling to let his memory quietly fade away.

Today, the 10th anniversary of the hate crime, his family and a host of speakers will gather in James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park in Jasper to recall the day when Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup and his body was dismembered as he was dragged along a rural East Texas road.

"I'm hoping we will get a positive response," said Betty Boatner, Byrd's sister. "Saturday will tell the story of how far we have come."

Boatner still lives in Jasper and cares for her elderly parents, Stella Byrd and James Byrd Sr. She said she hears secondhand reports that many residents aren't thrilled that the family is stirring up old memories.

But her family believes there are important lessons to be learned. Boatner points to her 9-year-old granddaughter.

"My grandbaby asked a question -- she didn't understand how this could happen," Boatner said. "She could hardly believe it. She started crying so I had to fight back tears. That is why we can't just let this become a faint memory. This horrific death took place in Jasper, Texas, and we need to remind people of that, talk about it, understand it and try and prevent it from happening again."

'Looks good' on surface

The family formed the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing, which has held one event this week in Houston and will hold another in San Francisco this month. The organization has collected 2,600 oral histories about racism.

Clara Byrd Taylor, Boatner's sister, is president of the organization.

"On the surface, it looks good in Jasper," Taylor said. "The races have been more cordial; older whites will speak to you and look you to your face. White men and white ladies will open doors for blacks going into businesses, and you will be greeted when you go into businesses, and that's a change. As for major changes, I can't really speak to you about that. I live in Houston, so it's hard for me to say."

But Taylor said her parents, both 83, were determined to stay in Jasper, a town of 8,000 that is 45 percent black and 55 percent Anglo.

"It's my parents' home," Taylor said. "We're not going to let them be victimized by that hateful crime to where it forces them to leave."

She hopes the Byrd Foundation will eventually put up something permanent in Jasper.

"The economy there hasn't been good, so we hope to do some grant writing to open a small museum," Taylor said.

'Still got some scars'

Not everyone is ready to relive that day.

Billy Rowles, who was Jasper County sheriff and investigated the crime, left town for the weekend rather than take part in the events.

"It's just one of those things I didn't want to go through again," Rowles said. "That thing really hurt our community. We got a big wound out of it. It's healed over, but we've still got some scars there. It's hurt our economy. People in Jasper, both black and white, just wish everybody would forget about it and let it go."

Yet Rowles said the case is still a part of him. "It's nothing you can ever forget," Rowles said. "It was a horrible crime and turned me into an old man taking high-blood-pressure medication. You can't explain a crime like that. We know it was a hate crime. I think we proved that in court, but there's just no way to explain something like that."

Change comes slowly

Walter Diggles, president of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, said he sees signs of progress and room for improvement a decade later.

Ministers, both black and Anglo, have continued the alliance that they started after the killing. The group was instrumental in getting both sides of the community to really talk to each other. Diggles also noted that blacks have made gains in elected offices.

"We have three black Americans on the City Council, and that gives us a majority, and three blacks on school board when we had two a decade ago. Those are things you can tangibly see as progress," Diggles said.

But Diggles, who is black, said change comes slowly in East Texas. He doesn't expect a big turnout today.

"Rural America is an aging population that doesn't take too kindly to change," Diggles said. "You won't see the masses of the community coming out because most of the community is made up of senior citizens not too interested in coming out. A lot of people just don't want to face the fact that racism is a problem in America, and I think most of it rests in that aging population."

The crime

James Byrd Jr. was offered a ride by John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer and Shawn Allen Berry, who then chained him to the back of a pickup. He was dragged nearly three miles along a rural East Texas road.

The convicted

King and Brewer are on Death Row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston. Berry was sentenced to life in prison and is in the Ramsey I Unit in Rosharon in Brazoria County. He is eligible for parole in 2038.

© 2008 The Star Telegram

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