20 Years Later: Hate Crime Still Haunts Texas Town

June 7 marks 20 years since James Byrd's racially-motivated murder

It's a city that calls itself the "Jewel of the Forest," but for many people old enough to remember, just hearing the name Jasper, Texas, can muster ugly memories.

Just ask Clara Byrd Taylor. Twenty years ago, her brother, James Byrd, was chained to the back of a truck by his ankles and dragged for miles down a paved Jasper road to an agonizing death. It was a horrifying, racially-motivated murder that grabbed international headlines and put a stain on Jasper that would not easily rub out.

"One of the most difficult things was explaining to our children why James was killed: because he was a black man," Byrd Taylor said. "They just couldn't understand that. They became afraid to come to Jasper themselves."

On June 7, 1998, three men, later identified as Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King, offered Byrd a ride. What followed would go down in hate-crime history.

Newton County Sheriff Billy Rowles was the sheriff of Jasper County when it happened. He said memories of the case, and the bloody, lengthy crime scene, haunt him still.

"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," Rowles said.

"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."

Rowles believes everyone in Jasper County suffered in the aftermath.

"It wasn't the city that murdered him, it wasn't the citizens that did that. That was three fools that did that, but we got blamed for it," he said. "We got stereotyped."

In the days after the murder, and throughout the trial, the rest of the world seemed to crowd into Jasper, pointing fingers.

Famous activists like Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton showed up. There were days when members of the Klan and the New Black Panther Party clashed in the streets.

All three suspects were convicted. Berry was sentenced to life in prison. Brewer was executed in 2011. King was also sentenced to death and just this year lost his final appeal.

"You know, you have to look at yourself when something happens like this and sometimes we didn't like what we saw," Rowles said.

At the Jasper city park named for James Byrd, two of his sisters recently met to talk about plans to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. They also have plans to purchase a home in Jasper that could serve as a museum.

One of the only books written about James Byrd's murder, "Hate Crime," was penned by Dallas author Joyce King. In honor of the 20th anniversary, it's now available on Audible.

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