Skip to Content

Killer of James Byrd Set to Be Executed This Week

James Byrd Jr CemeteryJames Byrd Jr Cemetery
The grave of James Byrd Jr. at the Jasper City Cemetery on the 20th anniversary of his murder in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 2018.Ryan Pelham—AP

The ringleader behind the 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr., one of the grisliest hate crimes of the modern era, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday.

John William King, 44, will be the second and final person to be executed in the case. Lawrence Brewer was executed in 2011. A third participant, Shawn Berry, is currently serving a life sentence.

The execution will become another chapter in a story that has kept the small community of Jasper, Texas in a seemingly inescapable crucible of race, hate, and history.

In the pre-dawn hours of June 7, 1998, King lured Byrd toward Berry’s truck with the promise of a ride. Instead, they beat him and chained him to the back of a truck. Brewer lowered the victim’s pants. The trio dragged the man for nearly 3 miles along a secluded and wooded road. Byrd was alive for at least two miles until his body ripped apart.

While the crime shocked the nation, it also shocked Jasper.

The city, with a population of about 8,800 at the time, had considered itself on the progressive side as these things go. They had an African American mayor and other black representation in local government and the business community. The white community were evolving on the subject of race and considered the kind of hate that festered in the hearts of King and Brewer a relic of a long-ago age.

“They’d been in prison, out of touch with the real world,” said one spokesperson at the time. “They had in their head that the law here was like it was fifty years ago and that there was not going to be a vigorous search for a killer of a black man.”

This is part of the painful reckoning you’ll find in Two Towns of Jasper, an extraordinary documentary that explored life inside the crucible that had been made visible by Byrd’s murder. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The 2002 film was co-produced and co-directed by two filmmakers and longtime friends, Marco Williams who is black and Whitney Dow who is white. The filming occurred during all three trials but relied heavily on the story of Shawn Berry, who was the last to be sentenced.

Berry was somewhat of a mystery to the community.

King, had been shuttled in and out of prison for petty robberies starting as a teen. Like Brewer, he emerged from prison a bona fide monster. Unlike the other two, Berry had no known white supremacist leanings and had claimed to be a bystander to the crime.

To many white folks, Berry seemed, well, like one of them. In some cases, uncomfortably so.

Williams and Dow decided on an unusual approach. Williams took an all-black film crew and spent time with the black residents of Jasper, and Dow took an all-white crew and filmed the white community. The self-segregation created an environment where people began to feel comfortable thinking out loud about race in ways that both reflected life in Jasper and the broader issues playing out in the South and beyond.

White patriarchs held long, untroubled dinner-table discussions about how using the n-word was no big deal. Byrd’s family was forced to reckon with the narrative that James, with an unnamed troubled past, was not a sympathetic victim. Closeted whites supremacists reflected on their private views. Black hair stylists became de facto community organizers. Everyone worried if the murder was a sign of more trouble to come.

“If you watch the film, not everybody comes off really well,” says Dow of the white characters he filmed. “The white community are not the heroes of the film.” The biggest complaint Dow got was a simple one: That he may have captured the things that people really feel about race, “But I just wish you didn’t have me saying them.” Williams said that some black characters felt exposed for different reasons. “Oops, now the white people are going to know how I really feel…what will happen?”

One answer came after the filmmakers captured a grim realization: The town cemetery was segregated by race, and Byrd is laid to rest in the black-only section. It was something that nobody in town, black or white, seemed to notice anymore. In a moment of grace, the town decided to remove the fence that kept the two cemeteries of Jasper apart.

Today, Jasper continues to address its many fences.

For many, race tensions have heightened. There hasn’t been a black mayor since Byrd died, although viable candidates are coming forward. Byrd’s family still dreams of building a multicultural and diversity education center in the city.

And the story of the murder continues to bedevil attempts to attract employers to town.

To their enduring credit, the Jasper Economic Development Corporation (JEDCO) does not shy away from the topic on their promotional materials. “Late in the last century, the heinous murder of Jasper’s citizen James Byrd Jr. led to the passage of both state and federal hate crime laws.”

It’s an important legacy. President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law on Oct. 28, 2009. As of last summer, the U.S. Justice Department has used the Shepard/Byrd law to indict 88 defendants in 42 hate crimes cases, with 64 convictions to date.

For now, Jasper waits. And, after King is executed, he will be buried in a plot some 100 yards away from the man he murdered, now a neighbor once again.

On Point

The FBI arrests the leader of an armed group for illegally “detaining” migrants at the New Mexico borderLarry Hopkins, the leader of an armed group that calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), was arrested two days after the ACLU publicly accused the group of illegal activity and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered an investigation. Hopkins, 69, was charged with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. According to a UCP spokesperson, the group has helped Border Patrol detain some 5,600 immigrants in the last two months. Both Paypal and GoFundMe have banned the group from their platforms.Reuters

Can data fix Florida’s prisons?
Florida spends some $2.4 billion to keep more than 10,000 people behind bars, 17% of whom are black. Last year the state became the first in the country to require jails, prosecutors, public defenders, courts and prisons to coordinate their data collection to better understand the experience of people as they move through the system. The data is set to be published online. “This new data is going to allow us to see whether reforms are working or whether the criminal justice system is working, instead of just going by ‘common sense’ or folksy thoughts,” says a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. A pilot program from the Tampa area has been exploring data collection practices to help other jurisdictions comply with the law. It goes into effect on July 1.
The Marshall Project

Five years after Ferguson burned, the area is still struggling to recover
This summer marks the fifth anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown, followed a few months later by the civil unrest which damaged property in the area around West Florrisant Avenue. The Urban League hopes to build a business incubator and commercial building on two still-empty lots, in part with help from a donation from Emerson, the global manufacturing giant that’s headquartered in Ferguson. “I am disappointed that we haven’t made more progress,” says Urban League President and CEO Michael McMillan. “So we decided to take it upon ourselves to do this second project to try and be a part of that solution.” The area is supervised by three different municipalities which converge on the area in question – Ferguson, Dellwood, and Jennings – which are working to come up with one set of zoning codes so developers have a standard playbook to work with.
St Louis Post-Dispatch

Not all U.S. Latinx workers are recovering from the Great Recession equally
The incomes of all U.S. workers experienced a period of decline between began in 2007-2009; though the data show that median income figures had recovered by 2014. For Latinx workers as a whole, the numbers appear to be similar: Their median personal income rose 5% from 2007 to 2017. But a deeper dive shows important differences. According to this study from Pew, demographic change is the real reason. Slowing immigration boosted the fortunes of longer-tenured immigrants, but U.S.-born Latinx workers, who are younger and less educated than U.S.-born workers overall, not only experienced greater losses in the recession, they have yet to recover.
Pew Research


On Background

Podcast: Buried Truths is a triumph of storytelling and reporting
I began reading about the history of race reportage three years ago when I started raceAhead. My two tentpoles were Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement, by Simeon Booker who is black, and The Race Beat, a history of civil rights coverage from the perspective of white reporters in the South, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Klibanoff has built on his Pulitzer-prize winning career with a moving podcast that digs more deeply into one of the stories he told in the book, the brazen 1948 murder of a black farmer living in rural Georgia who was determined to vote. Klibanoff, who is now a journalism professor at Emory University, gets his students involved in an epic forensic reporting journey that turns up new evidence in the death of Isaiah Nixon and brings a modicum of peace to his now-elderly daughter who witnessed his murder. In between, the team fills in the blanks on a society hellbent to hang on to white supremacy at any cost. Bonus: A young Robert Mueller makes an appearance.
Buried Truths Podcast

A café run by acid attack survivors
The café is called Sheroes’ Hangout, and it is transforming the lives of women in Agra, India. In addition to earning money, the women who had previously been shunned, are also raising awareness of the practice which is still widespread in India. “At Sheroes, survivors don’t cover their faces. They comfortably discuss the scariest moments of their lives and chat with customers from around the world. They wear makeup to accentuate their features. They laugh,” writes Soumya Karlamangla for the Los Angeles Times. The group was started by an advocacy group fighting for regulations on the sale of acid and harsher punishments for attackers. There are now two locations.
Los Angeles Times

Are you a brilliant and creative African woman? Netflix wants you to write for them
Netflix has announced its first-ever original African animated series called Mama K’s Team 4, the story of four teens who have been recruited by a secret agent to save the world and set in the neo-futuristic African city of Lusaka, Zambia. The series is being produced by Cape Town-based Triggerfish Animation Studios and leading London-based kids’ entertainment specialist CAKE, and part of a broader Netflix strategy to create family-friendly fare around the world.  The series is the brainchild of Zambian writer Malenga Mulendema, who was one of eight winners in a Triggerfish-sponsored pan-African talent search in 2015. “In creating a superhero show set in Lusaka, I hope to introduce the world to four strong African girls who save the day in their own fun and crazy way,” she says. Apply on or click below for more details.
Black Girl Nerds



We really don’t know how serious a problem hate crimes of any kind are because we don’t have good data.
—Heidi Beirich, Southern Poverty Law Center