- People in Jasper are in many ways still dealing with the aftermath of James Byrd Jr.’s 1998 murder.
- Many residents say the perpetrators were caught, but the crime still unfairly weighs on the town.
- In a Washington Post report, Byrd’s family said that local officials want to move past the crime.
In June 1998, the murder of James Byrd Jr. forever changed the small East Texas town of Jasper.
Known as the “Jewel of the Forest,” Jasper and its surrounding area had long been known for its natural beauty.
But that changed after Byrd, a 49-year-old Black man, was chained to the back of a pickup truck by three white men and dragged by his ankles for more than two miles on a winding road outside of the city limits. During the shockingly brutal act, Byrd was decapitated, and parts of his battered body were discovered along the route his killers took that night.
Jasper, which was seen as one of the more racially integrated areas of the region, sought to dispel the belief that their community was a hotbed of racism and unbridled hate. Similar to many of the racial reconciliation efforts that took place after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, many white residents of Jasper sought to assuage their Black neighbors that they would come together in the aftermath of the horrific crime.
However, a new Washington Post report describes a town that in many ways has sought to move forward while downplaying a crime that for 25 years has defined the area.
The Post reported that Byrd is not included in the local school district’s textbooks on history in the Lone Star State. The crime perpetuated upon Byrd is also not a part of the Jasper County Historical Museum, which has been open for 15 years.
And Byrd’s family told the newspaper that local officials haven’t offered much support in their efforts to keep Byrd’s name alive in the eyes of the public.
Louvon Byrd Harris, Byrd’s younger sister, told The Post that many people simply “want to forget what happened.”
“You know who people really are once the cameras are gone. And once the cameras were gone, people started saying, ‘Poor Jasper, we’re victims, too,'” she said.
David Shultz, one of the two white members on the Jasper City Council, told The Post that residents continue to bear the burden — unfairly — of the horrific crime. (Two of the men who killed Byrd have already been executed by the state, while the third man is serving a life sentence and is up for parole in 2038.)
“I don’t think what happened was the people in Jasper’s fault. I think people have a tendency to judge Jasper on what happened in the past, not the city that Jasper is today,” he said.
And Jasper Mayor Anderson Land, who is Black and knew Byrd growing up, even told The Post that the city needed a fresh perception.
“It’s the family’s job to keep James’s memory alive and I’m here to support them in that. But in order for Jasper to grow, we must move on,” he said.
Many Black residents believe otherwise, though, as they have not healed from the brutal hate crime and point to deep inequities that still exist in the area, which include sharp income divides between Black and white residents.
“Nothing much has changed here,” retired nursing aide Betty Lane told The Post.
While Byrd’s murder prompted the Texas legislature’s 2001 passage of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, along with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed by Congress was signed into law in 2009, his family has still sought to do more to keep his legacy alive.
After the murder, the family launched the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing. And they sought to open a museum that would be focused on racial reconciliation.
But a lack of funding ended those plans.
At the Jasper County Historical Museum, the institution’s part-time director told The Post that they’re trying to find a way to inform the public about the crime.
“We are working on how to address it as a museum,” Tod Lawlis told The Post.
Lawlis, who is white, said that he found out about a Byrd exhibit that was in Austin, the state capital, but was unsure if it would be showcased in Jasper.
“We’re trying to make arrangements to see it, and if it’s fair, we want to try to get it here. It is part of the county’s history. We want to tell it in an unbiased, fair way,” he added.
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