JASPER, Texas -- The mood in the courthouse here Thursday was one of quiet, respectful triumph as John William King received the death penalty for one of the most heinous crimes in recent American history, the murder of James Byrd Jr., whom he dragged to death behind a pick-up truck. The historic sentencing -- the first time a white man in Texas has received the death penalty for killing a black man since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s -- was met with a stunning display of racial unity in the courtroom. White and black Jasperites held hands in suspense while the decision was being read, then embraced each other afterwards. Three African-American residents -- Willie Rhodes, Gloria Mays and Marolynn White -- raised their hands in triumph. The family of Byrd's family was silent and tearful. Exiting the courtroom, Stella Brumley, Byrd's sister, said that justice had been served. "No doubt about it."
As King, who has shown no remorse during the trial, was taken from the courthouse after his death sentence, a reporter asked if he had anything to say to the Byrds. "Suck my dick," he spat.
I was a bit nervous driving down here from Austin, where I live. King's crime, the brutal, senseless torture of a disabled black man by a white supremacist, conjures up the worst images of backwards Texas towns. People here tend to think of Austin as an oasis, the non-Texas part of Texas. We might venture out to nearby state parks, where we are likely to meet up with travelers from California, New York or Pennsylvania, but we don't usually go to small Texas towns. Bigotry, violence and angry white men in pick-up trucks are what we imagine. And what Bill King did to James Byrd Jr. this past June represented our worst nightmare.
"Be careful in Jasper," everyone warned me. "People are crazy down there." One white friend who has family in East Texas said she knew most people were shocked by the Jasper murder, but she wasn't. "I'm just surprised it made it to trial," she said. "Black people disappear down there all the time."
I'm a white woman, originally from a small town in rural Virginia with roughly the same racial makeup as Jasper -- 45 percent black, 55 percent white -- so I thought I knew what I might find. As I got close to Jasper, population 8,400, the landscape was filled with tall stands of pine trees, innumerable churches, scary-looking white men in Bubba hats out in their yards burning what I hoped was trash, little stands selling fireworks and gun stores. One church, Prince of Peace Baptist, had this saying on its marquee: "It hadn't started to rain when Noah built the ark." All I could wonder was, What kind of ark does a black man need in Jasper County?
But with the exception of a wolf-whistle from three white men with fishing poles in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, the ominous "In the Heat of the Night" atmosphere that I feared never materialized. In fact, I have been completely bowled over by what I have witnessed in Jasper. Maybe it's not always like this here, maybe the world-media fishbowl or the trauma of the crime have created only a temporary harmony, but I've never witnessed this level of interracial dialogue, warmth and respect anywhere -- certainly not in the big "liberal" city of Austin.
The trial and the town's response to it defy almost all stereotyping -- as does the fact that Jasper's mayor, R.C. Horn, is black. The 110-year-old courthouse, with nine rows on each side in the viewers galley, reminded me more of a church than a courthouse. As in a wedding, the victim's family, all African-Americans, sat in the front pew on the left, while the perpetrator's father, aging and emphysema-suffering Ronald King, sat in the front on the right with the Rev. Ron Foushage, a white Catholic priest who has been counseling him. But the segregation stopped there. One of the Byrd family's primary supporters was Teresa Grimes, a white advocate from the group Crime Victims Assistance, who sat with the Byrds every day. With her arms around Grimes, Byrd's sister Mary Verrett said, "She is so concerned that she can read into whatever we need."
The rest of the courthouse was also integrated, made up of roughly half white and half African-American town residents. The residents sat together, talking, trying to make sense of what has happened. Frequently they hugged each other.
Of course, race relations in Jasper may not be as rosy as they seem. Ethel Parks, a black woman interviewed before the verdict, said, "Jasper has always been racist. What shocked us was that they would find a white man guilty of killing a black man. I never thought I'd see the day. And his getting the death penalty would be mind-blowing." It was King's venomous bigotry, and the horrendous way in which he and two ex-convict friends, who are yet to be tried, killed Byrd -- dragging him naked, conscious and in excruciating pain for three miles down a logging road, until a culvert ripped his head and shoulders off his body -- that seem to have unified the races. Maybe it took such naked evil to shake up Jasper's genteel small-town Southern racism, in which blacks and whites coexist but don't really cross paths; to place people not just in the same church but in the same pews, weeping, touching. And who knows how long it will last?
Yet Renee Mullins, the victim's daughter, told me she had never encountered any racism in her 28 years in Jasper before her father's murder. And perhaps the most extraordinary display of interracial reconciliation came after Ronald King, who has consistently expressed his concern for the Byrd family, called them to ask if he could meet with them to share their sorrow. After he took the stand to ask the jury to spare his son's life, the meeting occurred. Each of the women in Byrd's family hugged the elder King, saying they did not blame him and prayed for him.
The prosecutors -- who, like the defense team, are all white -- have vehemently denounced King's crimes as horrifically racist. Assistant District Attorney Pat Hardy described King's crime in language clearly meant to evoke a lynching: "Three robed riders came straight out of hell ... Instead of a rope, they used a chain, and instead of horses, they had a pick-up truck." For me, it was disconcerting and yet moving to hear their accents, ones I would characterize as "white cracker" -- an accent I associate with Southern small-town racism.
The jury was made up of 11 whites and the peer-selected foreman, an African-American named Joe Collins. A white Jasper resident explained to me that while outsiders may think this is due to racism, more than half of the initial jury pool was black. When it got down to the final pool, all of the seven potential black jurors, with the exception of Collins, exempted themselves by stating that they don't believe in the death penalty. In Texas, a person must believe in the death penalty in order to serve on a capital murder jury.
The fact that many of Jasper's black residents were opposed to the death penalty was ironic, but not surprising: Nationally, nonwhites are significantly more likely than whites to consider the death penalty unjust. But in this unique case, with the bone-deep knowledge of Southern courts' ugly history of letting off white lynch mobs, black Jasper residents found themselves for the first time reluctantly embracing capital punishment.
Byrd's sister Stella Brumley, who said that previously she was opposed to the death penalty, said, "You have to send a strong message or else we'll be back to the 1800s."
The Rev. Bobby Hudson, the African-American pastor of the Jasper Goodwill Baptist Church who is personally opposed to the death penalty, told me that black residents in Jasper would have considered it "a slap in the face" if King had received a life sentence instead of death. Despite Hudson's own anti-death penalty sentiments, which stem from his religious beliefs and the fact that African-Americans are overrepresented on death row, he said the fact that King got the death penalty meant "justice prevailed and we made history."
The white residents in Jasper were much more uniform in their support
for the death penalty. Every white person I interviewed,
with the noticeable and predictable exceptions of Rev. Foushage
and the main defense attorney, Sonny Cribbs, described themselves
as supporting the death penalty in general, and definitely for Bill
King. (In contrast, half of the black residents I talked with expressed at least some doubts about it.) But I was disturbed by some of the language the whites used. When asked if he wanted King executed, for example, one white construction worker said, "Definitely. I think we should string
them all up a tree." What "all" was he envisioning? A bunch of white
supremacists like King, or the more stereotypical image of death row
inmates -- a group of black men?
But what was most telling in Jasper
today was the way African-Americans and whites felt themselves to be
on the same side, the side of justice. The white sheriff hugging the
black FBI chief, a black woman named Gloria Mays thanking the white law
enforcement officers for making Jasper safe -- there were hugs and
thanks all around. And all it took was a death sentence for an
unrepentant racist murderer.
But for Edith Johnson, an African-American mother of 14 and Jasper
resident all her life, this was too high a price to pay. "King has to pay tenfold. But what is tenfold?" she said. "Murdering him won't bring Byrd back. Death is a relief. He needs to live and face what he did."