Thursday, June 07, 2007

June 7

Nine years ago today, three white men from Jasper, Texas, used a chain to tie a 49-year-old black man named James Byrd, Jr., to the back of a gray pickup truck. Having already beaten him severely and having sprayed his face with black paint, the men the dragged Byrd for three miles before dumping his body -- by then missing a head and an arm -- outside Huff Creek Cemetery, where generations of African Americans from the small east Texas town had been laid to rest.

Lawrence Brewer, John King, and Shawn Berry encountered Byrd as he was walking home, drunk, from a party. Although Brewer and King were each known to be white supremacists whose hatred for blacks had been refined in prison, they offered Byrd a ride nevertheless. According to Berry’s version of events, King eventually drove the group to a secluded field, where he announced his intention to “scare the shit out of this here nigger.” After the assailants kicked and beat Byrd to near unconsciousness, King explained to Berry that “we’re starting the Turner Diaries early.” During the scuffle King dropped his lighter, which investigators later discovered. In addition to being engraved with his prison nickname, “Possum,” John King’s lighter also bore a neo-Nazi symbol.

Forensic investigators determined later that James Byrd was still alive -- and probably struggling to keep his head up -- as the pickup dragged him by his feet. Before the rim of a drainage ditch tore off his head and arm, Byrd lost his wallet, keys, shoes and dentures, all of which were scattered along Huff Creek Road.

Texas Governor George W. Bush declined to attend James Byrd’s funeral, explaining that his presence would be viewed as too “political.” Bush decided that hate crime legislation -- particularly a law named in memory of Jasper’s latest lynching victim -- would be too political as well, and so he refused to offer his support for the bill, which died in committee. For their part, Brewer and King were sentenced to death for the murder of James Byrd, while Berry received a sentence of 40 years to life.

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