The Jasper myth

As the trial of the last defendant in the dragging death of James Byrd gets under way, these Texas residents are kidding themselves if they think they've conquered racism.

Published October 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As Shawn Berry goes to trial Monday for his alleged role in the brutal 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., Jasper residents, both black and white, remain united behind a single myth.

The myth of Jasper is this: Byrd's murder notwithstanding, the town is racially harmonious. Blacks and whites coexist not just peacefully, but untainted by the prejudice the national media has charged Jasper's residents with. In fact, the races do more than coexist peacefully. Whites, instead of being the oppressors, are presided over by a black power elite, including a black mayor, R.C. Horn. Or as one old white man, a former high school teacher, put it, "I don't know what people are talking about when they say we're racist. We turned this town over to the niggers to run years ago."

Byrd was killed June 7, 1998, when three men, Lawrence Brewer, Bill King and Shawn Berry, chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him three miles down the road. Byrd was black; his three killers -- whose guilt was never really in doubt -- were white.

Berry is the last of three defendants to be tried for the Byrd's murder. Jury selection starts Sept. 25. The two other men arrested for Byrd's murder, King and Berry, have been convicted and sentenced to death. But even if Berry, a Jasper native, is found guilty, whether or not he gets the death sentence remains up for grabs -- not least because his sins, although extreme, are those of the community where he was raised.

"It'll be interesting," says one investigator who was on the scene shortly after Byrd's body was discovered. "I think there's probably enough evidence for him to get the death penalty. He probably ought to get it. But I'm not sure he will."

Here's the thumbnail version of what happened on that June night when the shit hit the fan, putting Berry and his cohorts in jail and drawing swarms of journalists to an unwelcoming Jasper: Byrd, a local black Jasper resident, got so drunk at a party that his friends and relatives refused to drive him home. So he walked. When three white men, Berry, Brewer and King, offered him a ride in Berry's primer-gray pickup, he apparently jumped right in. What happened next is hazy, but the four men didn't go home. Instead, they started swilling beer together and smoking cigarettes.

Eventually, some combination of Berry, Brewer and King tired of the camaraderie and decided to chain their newfound companion to the back of their pickup and drag him down a county road. Finally, Byrd's head hit a culvert and split, along with one arm, from the rest of his body. Brewer, Berry and King unchained the body and left it outside the gates of a local graveyard, then went their separate ways.

Byrd's buttocks and heels were ground down almost to the bone. He was alive and probably conscious until his head hit the culvert. His last moments couldn't have been anything short of excruciating. Berry says he was a horrified bystander, not an active participant. He says the other men threatened him, saying "the same thing can happen to a nigger lover." He says he pissed his pants. Anyone would have. Berry says he's sorry. The pants will be entered into evidence.

In Jasper, people look at what happened to James Byrd and, because it's so horribly beyond comprehension, easily separate themselves from it. The thinking goes like this: How could anyone -- much less three people -- drink with a man, then chain him to the back of a truck and drag him down the road until his head is torn off? The only answer that has so far sufficed is that the perpetrators calculated the crime to impress a white supremacist group -- to prove their loyalty and worthiness, as it were. It was a hate crime, pure and simple. An act of evil.

Brewer and King were both easy to throw onto the trash heap of haters. Both had racist tattoos and open ties with a white supremacist group. While they were in jail in Jasper County, Brewer sent King a note proudly boasting that after Byrd's death, "we are bigger stars, or should I say hero of the day, than we ever expected." In other words, it was easy for Jasper residents, black and white, to look at King and Brewer and say, "No. That's not us." Shawn Berry is different.

There's no question that Berry was along for every step of Byrd's final ride, or even that he drove the truck for part of it. But where King and Brewer are viewed as simply evil, Berry is treated more gently. His defense hews to a line that many Jasper residents -- including several blacks interviewed by Dan Rather on a Sept. 29 "60 Minutes II" segment -- have trouble discounting out of hand: He wasn't hateful, merely complacent. Like almost everyone else in town.

King and Berry, both 24, grew up in Jasper. They were friends from their early teenage years on, and after they were caught breaking into a warehouse, both did time in boot camp. But as Rather noted, "Berry did well on probation," while King, apparently beginning to show his true stripes, ended up in prison. And where King openly embraced white supremacy, regularly and loudly denouncing blacks, Jews and Asians, Berry was more circumspect. He hung out with King -- and later Brewer -- and tolerated the remarks, but, according to his interview with Dan Rather, that was all.

It's a crucial distinction that, even in the face of Byrd's headless, wasted body, many people believe may save Berry's life. According to one observer who sat in on the suspects' initial arraignment in June 1998, Berry was the only one who showed any awareness that maybe he'd done something wrong. Where King and Brewer sat stone-faced, Berry seemed embarrassed by the fact that he was connected with the incident. More evidence that may help save Berry? Where Brewer, 32, sports tattoos of a burning cross, SS lightning bolts and Ku Klux Klan symbols, Berry has a happy face and a playboy bunny.

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Alive, Byrd was a bad drunk and a reputed crackhead. Dead he is clearly different. He has acquired a gravitas and power that would forever have eluded him had he lived. On the national stage, he has become a weapon in the arsenal Al Gore has aimed at self-proclaimed compassionate conservative and GOP front-runner Gov. George W. Bush, who failed to get behind the 1998 Texas James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. On a state level, Byrd not only inspired the hate crimes bill, but made Texas Monthly's September 1999 list of the "Texas Twenty" most significant figures of the year, as "law's latest symbol." In Jasper, he has become a sort of magician, uniting the town -- at least superficially and temporarily -- against racism of any stripe.

The post-Byrd union, however, is something of a sham. Partly heartfelt, it is also offered up to placate the journalists who parachute in, intent on casting Jasper as the last, worst bastion of brutal Southern Bubba-ism. In reality, racism in Jasper remains as complex and powerful as ever.

On the one hand, Jesse Jackson, the New Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan have all failed to turn Byrd's death into a Jasper-wide political rallying point. On the other, the powers that be -- most of whom are, in spite of the town's black mayor, white -- remain remarkably tone-deaf about race politics in the wake of the gruesome murder, which supposedly galvanized a deep bout of public soul-searching. Any hint of a clue that using blacks as the butt of cheap jokes might be a bad idea seems foreign; sensitivity to the importance of symbols significant to the African-American community (which makes up 45 percent of the town's 8,400 residents) is lacking; and self-consciousness about using the word "nigger" in polite conversation is strikingly scarce.

Consider a scene that took place two days before jury selection began for the second of the three murder trials: A criminal defense attorney, a man who regularly represents clients of all races, walks into a local law enforcement officer's office. Both men are white. Several other people, also white, are milling about the office. To ease into his visit -- grease the wheels of good ol' boyism -- the attorney pulls out a photo of his white wife, soft-lit and Sears-lovely, and shows it around the room. The lawman reciprocates, pulling out a carefully clipped photo of his "wife" out of his wallet and passing it around. The photo shows a skinny-necked burn victim. The lawman is divorced and in a town this size everyone knows it. Guffaws all around.

The attorney, a young man early in his first marriage to a woman who had no previous kids, admonishes the officer gently: "No, seriously, lemme show you my step-kids." Again he pulls a carefully clipped photo out of his billfold. It shows two little girls, both black. An even bigger round of laughs. The attorney goes in for the kill. "And here's my first wife," he says, reaching into his wallet one last time. Again a clipped head shot: This one has come from a high-school yearbook and shows the face of a very dark-skinned, very overweight black teenage girl with a big, ragged afro. The lawman laughs louder than ever. The ice is broken. The two men get down to business.

Around the same time, when local officials conducting public business might reasonably be expected to be especially sensitive to the appearance of racial sensitivity, the school board faced a conundrum. Construction on the local high school, supposed to have been completed by a certain date, had gone slowly. Students returned to classes days later than they had expected. Since state funding would be slashed unless the days were made up over the course of the year, the school board began deciding which state holidays were less than totally sacred. One of the days they chose? Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

While not ubiquitous, this strain of unconsidered disrespect permeates the town's population. Many genuinely well-meaning people will stare you straight in the eye, proclaim themselves innocent of racism and, having just asserted their racial sensitivity and understanding, immediately pop out with a statement that, in some corner of the country more sensitized to questions of racism, would clearly be discomfiting. "Lemme tell you about the races here in East Texas," says one state-level law enforcement officer who grew up outside Jasper. "You've got a handful of hardcore race haters, the KKK and the others. Then you've got everyone else. Everyone else was raised to respect niggers. Eat with 'em, go to school with 'em, share with 'em ... do just about anything but marry 'em."

The do-everything-but-marry-'em attitude sits at the mildest end of the racism spectrum by far. But it points the way toward more pernicious sentiments. It speaks to an unthinking, "we're different from and better than them" lack of respect, which -- at the farthest end of that spectrum -- makes violence against blacks that much easier than it should be. In Berry's case, it may have made the violence easier to tolerate than to stop.

By Ashley Craddock

Ashley Craddock is a journalist living in San Francisco.

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